Teen behaviour contracts are often used both at school and at home. But are they effective?
In this article we’ll explore just how helpful teenage behaviour contracts can be and in what kinds of situations they can be effective, from the point of view of a counsellor and a psychologist.
We also talk you through how to create a behaviour contract.
Teen Contracts: Why Would We Need Them?
Let’s face it, along with the wonderful bits, being a parent can be challenging, bewildering and at times very trying. And despite lots of really helpful books being written on the topic, there really is no blueprint!
It’s a huge responsibility, right? When we enter into the exciting world of bringing up children, what we are also doing is bringing up adults. We guide and teach our children to eat, walk, talk, socialise, understand rules and follow the right path towards independence.
Teen Behaviour Contract: Download and Print Here
Your free behaviour contract template includes a parent child contract example to help get you started in creating your own teen contract.
Teen Contract: Essential Information
As you can see, this is a parent teenager contract where you as parents make commitments, just as you are asking your teen to do.
The behavior contract is a two-way commitment, end this makes it much more likely to succeed.
When you make a contract with kids, they need to know that you are listening to them just as much as they are listening to you.
In the example of a behavior contract on page 3 of your download, you will see that mum Janine and dad Tom have reflected on what they could do better to support their son, Fred, with managing his anger. This makes Fred more willing to buy into the process.
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What is a Behaviour Contract?
A behaviour contract is a written agreement between two or more parties.
- A parent child contract.
- Behaviour contracts for high school students (teacher – pupil contract).
- Health practitioner – child – parent contracts.
In this article we focus on parent child contracts (also known as home rules contracts), but the principles are the same with the other forms of behavior contract.
The Purpose of a Behaviour Contract
The contract sets out which behaviours the child is going to focus on doing or avoiding. The purpose is to create clarity so that a goal can be achieved.
As you can see below, I advise that you only focus on one goal at a time in your behaviour contract. Otherwise you risk becoming overwhelmed and the behaviour contract is much more likely to fail.
As you can see in this example, behaviour contracts need to take into account the responsibilities of the adults as well as the child.
Let’s delve deeper into the fictional case example of Thomas.
Case Example: Thomas
In the example above, the family want to avoid regular escalation in shouting and verbal aggression.
Thomas is asked to do something but he does not respond.
This may be because he is choosing not to respond as he is not motivated to do the task. It may also be that he has not heard, perhaps because he is hyper-focused on an activity such as gaming.
Thomas’ parents ask again but in a sharper tone. This may get a response but leaves Thomas feeling defensive and he may give a negative response in return.
The situation can quickly escalate as Thomas’ parents feel he is being deliberately rude.
Teenage Contract Red Flags to Avoid
Behaviour contracts cannot be imposed on a teen.
This is a recipe for failure. Instead they must be negotiated.
The teenager must “buy in” to the contract as much as the parents.
In Thomas’ case, he wants to see an end to the shouting just as much as his parents do, so he is keen to find a solution.
However, he also wants his parents to understand that when he is gaming, he doesn’t always process their instructions as he is so focused on the game. He needs them to be in the same room and to make eye contact whilst giving the instruction.
Behaviour Contracts: Connection Before Correction
If your relationship with your teen is very strained, you may not be ready to use a behaviour contract. Behaviour contracts require mutual respect, trust and support.
If you don’t have this, first spend time building a connection with your child.
Set an intention to spend at least 30 minutes per day just spending time with your child and listening to them talk about their lives.
Then perhaps once a week or once a month, find something special to do together that you both enjoy, such as a walk or a trip to a local cafe.
Make sure you hone your listening skills, as you will need these when you are ready to negotiate a behaviour contract with your child.
Teen Behaviour Contracts: When to Use Them
So, in what situations might you find it beneficial to use a teen behaviour contract?
- If your teen needs extra guidance and support regarding certain problematic behaviours.
- If your teenager’s emotional intelligence is not as as developed as their intellectual abilities and this leaves them vulnerable. For example, a child may be capable of watching pornographic material on the internet but may not be able to fully understand the implications of this.
- Parents of teenagers who find concentration and organisation tricky and need expectations to be more concrete.
- Parents of teenagers who can act impulsively and need a concrete reminder that certain behaviours are risky or unacceptable.
- Families where day-to-day dynamics are challenging and more clarity is required regarding expectations.
Creating a Behaviour Contract
The best time to draw up a behaviour contract is before problems arise, or certainly before they reach crisis point.
However, try not to be too quick to use a teenager contract.
Making mistakes provides great life learning for your teenager. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to reach for the pen and paper to draw up a behaviour contract.
Your teenager requires guidance and support from you but they also need some freedom to test boundaries and experience natural consequences.
Teenager Contracts For Specific and Problematic Behaviours
Contracts should only be used for very specific behaviours, where you notice that there is a repeated pattern of unhelpful behaviour and you would like your family to break that unhelpful pattern.
Teen Contracts For a New Responsibility
You can also create a contract when something new – or a change – is occurring that requires boundaries and clear expectations for your child’s safety. For example:
- Having a mobile phone for the first time.
- Dating for the first time.
- Driving a car.
Teen Behaviour Contracts and Setting Expectations
Clarity is everything. If your child isn’t fully aware of the boundary or struggles to adhere to it, behaviour contracts provide a visual, concrete aid.
Examples for older children that set out tasks and behaviour expectations:
- Sticking to a night-time curfew.
- Helping with a specific task around the house.
- Putting their clothes away.
- Sticking to an agreed screen time limit.
Teen Contracts and the Importance of Positive Feedback
Recognising, praising and rewarding your child’s effort is vital for your child’s confidence and motivation, even if you are only seeing slow progress.
The ‘currency’ of reward you use for your child or teen will depend on their interests and passions and what they might respond best to!
Success should always include verbal praise.
Reward examples include:
- Tokens which can be saved up towards a larger reward (e.g. new computer game)
- Phone credits
- More time on video games
- A bike ride together
However, rewards are controversial and you should not rely heavily on them.
Whilst a reward can help a child to feel recognised and heard, keep in mind that it’s more important to instill internal motivation in your child over time.
Reasons to Create Teenage Behaviour Contracts
As a child matures through their teen years, they still require clear boundaries about what behaviours are appropriate or expected.
Some might argue, even more so!
Turning a year older means your teenager gets more responsibility, privileges and access to more adult activities. It can be a positive milestone that gets your teen thinking about what ownership they can take towards their choices and behaviours and how this impacts them and others.
As a parent you need to respond to these changes adopting a parenting style that allows room for friendship and support, encouraging autonomy and ownership in the choices their teenager makes.
Be aware of these milestones in your teenagers life in order to start setting appropriate boundaries.
13 years: Recommended lower age for social media access.
15 years: Movie options with more adult themes.
16 years: Legally allowed to have sex and ride a lower-powered motorbike (UK).
17 years: Legally allowed to drive a car in the UK.
18 years: Legally allowed to drink, vote and gamble in the UK.
21 years: Legally allowed to drink in the USA.
To keep your teenager safe whilst supporting their development from co-dependency to independency, teen contracts can be a fantastic tool.
Behaviour Contracts: When Are They Not Suitable?
A teenage behaviour contract is a learning tool. In some circumstances it is a way of keeping your child safe.
It is not for punishment or harsh discipline.
It must be collaborative.
If you want to change a particular behaviour but your child is not on board, a behaviour contract will not work. You need to think about ways to engage them in the process first.
Teen Contracts: Is Your Child Capable of Complying?
You should not use a teenage behaviour contract if your child is not yet capable of doing what you want them to do.
This is very important.
Think very carefully about the skills required to do the task. Remember that a teenager’s brain is not fully developed and you may be asking too much of them.
Here’s an example:
Contracts For Teenagers: Case Example – Rosie
Fourteen year-old Rosie’s mum Emma asks Rosie to clean her room. She puts it off. Emma asks again.
However, Rosie always seems to have something else more pressing, and it does not get done. This leads to a huge argument.
Emma is concerned that plates, cups and empty food packets are left in the room for weeks and it is a health hazard. Therefore Emma cleans the room herself one day, but feels resentful about this. Rosie is very academically able and her mother cannot understand why Rosie doesn’t clean her room.
From Rosie’s perspective, the instruction is too overwhelming. Rosie knows her room needs cleaning but this consists of many steps. For example, get a black bin bag from downstairs, pick the rubbish up off the floor, pick up the clothes, sort the dirty from the clean clothes, and so on. Her brain is so overwhelmed that it feels almost impossible to get started.
Once Emma realises this, actually a behaviour contract is not needed. Two things are needed:
- Help Rosie break the task into simple, clear steps.
- Help Rosie start the task. (It can be helpful to begin the task with your child, then once they are in the flow of it, you can leave.)
Teen Behaviour Contract: Don’t Use Them For Vague Expectations
You should not use a teenage behaviour contract if you are vague about your expectations. If you cannot pick one single behaviour and make your expectations perfectly clear, a behaviour contract will fail.
Behaviour contracts are not designed to use for “general behaviour”.
For example, the following phrases are much too vague and should not be used:
I want you to behave well all day.
Don’t be naughty.
You need to act more maturely and make better decisions.
You should be able to describe exactly what you want to see in just one sentence.
Furthermore, you must check that your child fully understands this, and give them a chance to contribute to the wording.
Teenage Behaviour Contracts and The Importance of Collaboration
Involve your teenager from the beginning and discuss the terms of the contract. This is the only way to develop your child’s trust, with open communication and a sense of fairness.
As the adult though, it is important to stay in control of the process.
A successful behaviour contract defines one single clear target.
Agree on the period of time the agreement will be valid from and until.
Monitor and review success throughout and at the end of the agreed period.
Parent Teen Contracts Vs Natural Consequences
Behaviour contracts should not be used to manage absolutely everything. In many cases teenagers need to learn and understand natural consequences, without the need for parental, adult intervention or written agreements.
If they refuse to wear a rain coat when it’s a rainy day, they will get wet. If they refuse to complete their homework, they may get a sanction from school.
By experiencing natural consequences, they will develop a sense of capability and resilience.
If The Behaviour Contract Breaks: What To Do
1) It’s a process. It’s reasonable to expect that your child may not hit the mark first time, every time. Habits are actually harder to break and change than adopting new behaviours. So, if your contract is for behaviour change or improvement, you need to allow time for adjustment to happen.
2) If your teenager hasn’t been able to meet the contract agreement, this doesn’t always mean they’re not ready for the responsibility. They may just require more guidance and clarification.
3) Teenagers can often exhibit “bad behaviour” as a cry for help, or as a response to something they don’t yet understand how to deal with. Talk to them about what might be worrying them.
4) If the contract is broken and conflict arises, try to stay calm and listen to what your teenager has to say by way of explanation. Refer back to the contract and refresh yourselves with what was agreed. Renegotiate the contract to give yourselves a better chance of success. Ask your teenager what they think should happen next and then discuss it together.
Teen Contracts: Should There Be a Consequence if Your Teen Breaks the Contract?
If your teen breaks their side of the bargain in a parent teen contract, your response should depend on the situation. If it affects someone else negatively (for example if they have hit a sibling) then there should be a consequence.
This consequence should be discussed and negotiated in advance. You can add the consequence to the contract as a reminder if this feels right for you.
Golden Rules For Parent Contracts With Teenagers
Below are some golden rules to keep in mind when constructing a teenage behaviour contract.
Don’t make it too complicated. Make sure everyone clearly understands the content. Ensure the goal is realistic and achievable for your child. Don’t just assume it is.
Use clear and simple language. Steer clear of vague language such as ‘behave’.
Collaborate. Create a contract in collaboration with your child. Their opinion matters. If they feel heard, they are more likely to engage with the contract’s content and intent. Remember, they’re the one who is going to have to meet its demands.
Review. Review, adjust and change the terms of the contract as your teenager matures. Acknowledge if you don’t need the contract any more. Celebrate your child’s successful progress.
Teenage Behaviour Contracts: Pros and Cons
Here’s a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of using teenage behaviour contracts.
When well thought out and collaborative, teenage behaviour contracts can:
- Help teens avoid making bad or risky judgments/choices;
- Promote self-regulation, self-reflection and growth;
- Improve communication and understanding;
- Teach accountability;
- Improve relationships;
- Build trust;
- Enhance social skills.
The cons of behaviour contracts come in when there is misunderstanding of the purpose of a behaviour contract, vague or unrealistic expectations of a child, or parents do not involve their teen sufficiently in the process.
Poorly thought out behaviour contracts lead to:
- A sense of failure, both for child and parents;
- A feeling of overwhelm (if the expectation is too big or too vague such as “behave well all day”);
- Resentment from both child and parents.
2 Examples of Teenage Behaviour Contracts
Teen Contract Example 1 – Emilia’s Mobile Phone Contract
Emilia starts high school in September and will travel on the bus on school days. She will need a cell phone. Mum is most worried about her keeping safe and Dad is most worried about her losing the phone and expecting a replacement!
Mum, Dad and Emilia have a chat before the school term starts about what having a mobile phone means. They agree to draw up an effective family contract.
They agree that if she doesn’t follow the rules of the contract Emilia will get a warning the first time, but the second time she will lose use of the phone for a day at the weekend. Here is their parent-child contract.
Teen Contract Example 2 – Matthew’s Contract
Matthew really dislikes doing chores. He tends to moan or find excuses not to do them. Mum points out that they all need to pitch in and help each other out. We all benefit after all.
Matthew starts his exams next month, so Mum reduces his chores. However, she feels it is important for Matthew to share some responsibility, to the level he can manage. On that basis, they are going to keep the chores list under constant review.
The current chore list is as follows:
- Help Mum change my sheets at the weekend.
- Bring my plate and cutlery to the kitchen after every meal and put them in the dishwasher.
- Empty the dishwasher on Mondays and Fridays.
- Hang up my blazer and school uniform when I get home from school.
Behaviour Contracts: Summary
Teenage behaviour contracts are a great way of bringing together ideas for change, improvement and self-growth.
They can help young people to keep a focus on desired behaviours and how they might achieve them.
But they cannot be imposed on teens.
They involve a collaborative, team approach.
Behaviour changes take time and effort, patience and commitment from all parties. Ultimately, when effective, the results can be far reaching.
You may also find this resource about behaviour contracts helpful. It’s aimed at parents of children and young people with additional needs.
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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