Behavior Contracts For Teens
You thought the "terrible twos" were bad. Now there's dating, driving, drugs, alcohol, chores, grades and a whole slew of other issues waiting to ambush you as a parent. Besides begging and pleading, what can you do to keep your child safe and happy?
A growing number of professionals and parents are turning to behavior contracts as a clear means for relaying what is expected from preteens and teens. Mark Kichler, a father and the president of KidsContracts, Inc., shares his views on why behavior contracts just might be the answer to some of parenting's most trying moments.
iP:How are behavior contracts used?
MK: Behavior contracts are one of the simplest but most overlooked techniques available to help parents through the difficult preteen and teenage years. When used properly, written contracts can be incredibly successful in preventing or stopping unwanted behavior. Parents need to sit down and decide what the rules are going to be and what discipline will be enforced if those rules are broken.
It is critical that the rules and any consequences are written in easy-to-understand language. Once parents are satisfied with their written contracts, they need to sit down with their children and read each rule and consequence. Parents need to be ready to listen to their kids' concerns with the agreements and make any changes that are appropriate.
Once the parents and kids have agreed upon changes and a final agreement is written, parents and their children must sign and date it. A copy should then be given to each child, and the parents should put a copy in a safe place where it won't be misplaced.
iP:Why do they work?
MK: Behavior contracts work because all children want and need structure in their lives. Written agreements will bring a calming effect to them because they know the rules and their consequences and find that very reassuring. In addition, written contracts will reduce the number of disagreements between parents and their kids because the rules were previously discussed and agreed upon in advance.
iP: Who should be using behavior contracts? Would anyone not benefit from a behavior contract?
MK: Parents should start using written agreements with their children from the time they start giving them an allowance (5 to 7 years old) until they are young adults and leave home. It is very appropriate for young children to have simple agreements on allowance and household chores. As they get older, new contracts should be introduced on issues like dating, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, school, driving, etc.
I believe that all families would benefit from behavior contracts regardless of race, religion or economic status. However, it is important to remember that contracts do not provide all of the answers for parents but are just one more important tool that is available to all families.
iP: Is there research or professional opinion that supports the use of behavior contracts?
MK: Yes. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reported in their sixth annual national teen substance abuse survey that parents who are "'hands-on' – parents who have established a household culture of rules and expectations for their teens' behavior – raise children who are less at risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs." In addition, they said "Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens in 'hands-on' households are more likely to have an excellent relationship with their parents than teens with 'hands-off' parents." The survey concluded that, "parents should be parents to their teenagers, not pals."
La Rae G. Moncada, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor, says, "I think contracts are a great idea. In fact, I encourage them in my practice."
iP: What are the most important things to keep in mind when using behavior contracts?
MK: Parents need to plan ahead, anticipate future areas of concern and write the rules before there is a problem.
Parents need to write the contracts in clear, simple language that can be easily understood by the child.
Parents need to involve their children in the process by writing the contract and then discussing it in detail with their children and making changes if necessary. The kids need to buy into the process and have a feeling of ownership.
Parents and children must sign and date the agreement.
Finally, children will "test" the agreement by breaking or stretching a rule. When this occurs, it is critical that parents talk with the child, review the contract with them and then follow through with the consequences. If parents fail to impose the penalty outlined in the contract, then the contracts will no longer be of any use.
iP: Can you give examples from your own life where a behavior contract worked or did not work?
MK: The idea for KidsContracts began 10 years ago when I had disagreements about allowance with my children, Brian and Sara. I developed an agreement with simple weekly allowance coupons that were prepared annually on their birthday. All disagreements about allowance immediately stopped, as the kids became responsible for managing their own money with the use of the coupons. We still use that allowance system for my daughter who is now a senior in high school.
Driving can be a life and death issue for teenagers; the American Academy of Pediatrics states that, "motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death in people age 16 to 20." When my kids started to drive – because of a real fear for their safety – I wrote a driving contract that spelled out the family rules and very severe consequences if those rules were broken. It is now almost six years later and neither child has ever had a ticket, been seen driving recklessly or without a seatbelt, never been seen under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and only one child has had an accident, which was just a minor fender-bender.