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7 Steps to an Effective Family Contract

Parenting a teen or tween can be daunting. How much freedom do we give? What boundaries and expectations do we need to convey to our teens? What should the consequences be when those boundaries are crossed? These are questions I hear in my office every day.
For most tweens and teens, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is still forming. This is where the ability to think through consequences and to control impulsivity takes place. With all of the temptations available to teens, this can be a scary dilemma.
The task of individuation (breaking away from the family while maintaining a healthy connection) begins in early childhood and escalates in adolescence. There is a struggle for identity and a need for autonomy. While establishing a secure base, we as parents need to give our teens more freedom, but with guidelines and direction. We need to promote autonomy while establishing boundaries. A family contract is a great tool to accomplish these objectives.
A good family contract clarifies expectations and demonstrates family values. The goals of a family contract should be to:
1. Develop responsibility, trust and trustworthiness
2. Promote accountability
3. Demonstrate parental interest and concern
4. Promote a sense of security and safety
5. Build character, confidence and autonomy
Here are the steps to creating an effective family contract:
1. Outline areas of concern. Some examples might be: Kindness and Respect, Health and Safety, Homework and Grades or The Use of Cell Phones and Computers. The areas of concern will be different for each family.
2. Be Realistic. Set boundaries that aren’t too rigid. For example, instead of “I will never try alcohol until I am 21,” you might state, “I will never allow a substance take control of my body.”
3. Use statements that are affirmations, rather than commands. “I will” instead of “You will.” This approach is more palpable for the adolescent who is seeking autonomy.
4. Begin each area of concern with a “compassion” statement. For example, “I know that my health and safety is a priority to my parents as it is to me.” Then follow with, “I will honor the following if I am out with my friends in their car:
a. I will always carry identification.
b. I will insist that the driver drives carefully.
c. I will refuse to ride with someone who has been drinking or using drugs even if they appear sober.”
5. State clear consequences in bold print. Make sure you are able to follow through with the consequences. Consequences will also be different for each family. Consequences can involve taking away privileges such as cell phones, computers, driver’s education, the car, or grounding for short periods of time – anything that might be of importance to your child.
6. End with another “compassion” statement. The statement should include such thoughts as love, concern and caring as you guide your child into adulthood.
7. With your child, read through, negotiate, revise and agree on all points. Parents and teens should sign and date the document. Give your child a copy. Revise when necessary, in writing. All parties should sign and date the revision.
It has been said before that our kids don’t come with instructions. It is up to us as parents to become educated and informed so that we can provide our teens with guidance that will keep them safe and help them to be all they can be. Learn about your child’s culture. Go to school programs or other programs your community offers regarding the issues of today’s teens. If you do this you will create a powerful family contract that will prove to be an effective tool in guiding your teen into a healthy, responsible, and successful adulthood.
Phyllis Bisch is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a private practice in North Dallas, where she works primarily with adolescents and their families. She has two young adult daughters.
Published December 2013