There will come a time in every parent/adolescent relationship that a behavioral contract should be considered, not only for your sanity, but also as a way to stimulate growth in the adolescent’s ability to deal with issues regarding family values and rules.

In my private practice and work in schools I have developed countless behavioral contracts usually for student failure and/or acting out behavior. Instead, I suggest parents take a proactive approach with behavior contracts simply because it is a good strategy for stimulating greater learning and moral judgment. Why wait until the adolescent’s behavior becomes a challenge to family rules and values?

Behavior contracts are developmental. That is, most adolescents possess the ability for higher order thinking or abstract ideas and support family values but often regress in their behavior because of conflicts between family values and the pull of the peer group. Such adolescent behavior is especially troublesome when the peer group challenges family values associated with personal freedom and responsibility. It is simply easier and more popular to go with the peer groups’ values than family values because of the adolescent’s vulnerability associated with sexual experimentation, driving a car, curfews, alcohol — the list is endless.

Therefore, to successfully deal with the many pitfalls challenging the adolescent and family values the parent and adolescent need to create a behavior contract that is above all, concrete yet abstract. A concrete approach is the actual spelling out of the privileges and consequences of the contract. The abstract concept or higher order thinking is the actual negotiation, acceptance and follow through of the contract as defined by the family’s values and rules.

Thus, the major points to consider when writing a behavior contract with an adolescent is to be specific about the concrete agreement between parent and adolescent. Rules, privileges and behaviors should be spelled out or concretely defined. Also, be prepared to negotiate since negotiation serves as a buy in for the adolescent and fosters higher order thinking. For example, what are the concrete consequences if privileges are not followed?

In addition, include only a few rules and behaviors. Too many rules and behaviors could set the adolescent up for failure. Adolescents are masters at stretching boundaries and distorting your words for their own liking, so keep the contract simple.        Moreover, define positives and negative behaviors concretely. Positive behaviors often serve as incentives that keep the adolescent focused and connected to the contract. For example, if a curfew is followed for one month, the contract can be revised, such as increasing the adolescent’s curfew time by 30 minutes. Again, be sure that the adolescent feels he /she is a factor in creating the contract. If he/she does not feel included the parent could be back at step one and creating another behavior contract. Lastly, be consistent and above all, never put privileges and consequences into a contract that are not doable.

Remember, behavior contracts should be developmental. You ultimate goal is intended to prepare the adolescent for the greatest behavior contract of all — which is his/her life and of course respect for your family values or legacy.

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