Contracts of Trust Between Parents and Teenagers
A written contract may help parents with developing trust in teens. Here's how to begin negotiations.
Although parents of teenagers may at times feel like putting a
contract out on their kids, many child-development experts suggest a much
friendlier form of developing trust in teens, called a "contract of
This contract doesn't require the services of a lawyer,
arbitrator, or labor leader. All it takes is two parties (parents and
adolescents) and a willingness to sit down at the bargaining table to hash out
an agreement that everyone can live with.
"The thing I like about contracts is the general concept of
parents talking with their kids -- not necessarily as peers, because they're
not -- but with respect and the give-and-take, understanding and negotiation
that goes into that," says Robert Sege, MD, PhD, associate chief of the
division of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at The Floating Hospital
for Children at New England Medical Center in Boston.
Not all therapists agree, of course, that a contract helps
families significantly. Carol Maxym, PhD, who counsels families of troubled
teens in private practice in Honolulu and Washington, D.C., doesn't usually
suggest her clients write contracts. She contends that negotiating a contract
with a teen automatically puts the teen in control. Because a contract may be
difficult to enforce, it may cause more rather than less family turmoil.
If families insist on having one, she tells WebMD, she insists
that the result has to be out in the open. "If you're making a contract, it
goes on the refrigerator. This is public knowledge. If Johnny is making a
contract with Mom, Dad has got to know about it, because otherwise we get into
'divide and conquer.'"
Yet written contracts are increasingly popular as an
alternative to the teen/parent battles that overwhelm so many families. Why?
Sege tells WebMD that kids respond to reasonable expectations that are mutually
agreed upon. "That's a very positive aspect of parenting a teenager,"
he says. "Then parents can sit back and feel very proud that their children
are able to have this discussion and stick to their word as best as they
Contracts of Safety
A contract of trust can be either a formal agreement written in
ink and signed by all parties, or a less rigid oral contract that may follow a
discussion of expectations. Contracts may stipulate how much time a teen
devotes to schoolwork, and how much access the teen may have to the car. But
effective contracts are often limited, and focus on critical safety issues.
"In particular the one that I like is the contract between
the parents and kids that if the kids need a ride home from anywhere, any time,
the parents will pick them up, no questions asked," says Sege. "And
they'll be in no more trouble than they would have been for, say, curfew
"One of the common things, particularly among suburban kids
where they're driving everywhere, is that they'll be at a party and either they
or the person who drove them will be drunk or stoned and they have to figure
out how to get home," he says. "To have the parents function as a taxi
and not even discuss it with the kid until the next day provides a safety