Contracts of Trust Between Parents and Teenagers

A written contract may help parents with developing trust in teens. Here's how to begin negotiations.

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on August 06, 2003

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 trust."

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 can."

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 violation."

"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 valve."

At the Bargaining Table

As with any contract negotiation, Sege and Maxym say chances for success are greater if both parties follow a few simple rules:

  • The teen's and parents' responsibilities under the contract should be clearly laid out. For example, if the contract involves budgeting for personal expenses, it may specify that the teen is responsible for buying his own school supplies and that the parents are responsible for ensuring that the kids have the adequate resources to do so, such as allowance or payment for chores. "You obviously want at the end of this period for the child to make some of his own financial decisions, so how that progresses should also be part of the contract," Sege says.
  • The definition of what constitutes a breach of contract must be clear. If the contract spells out an 11 p.m. curfew, is the teen in hot water if she slips in at 11:02? 11:15?
  • Establish clear and consistent consequences for breaking a contract. Ideally, the punishment should be appropriate to the offense. "Say a child is drunk, drives home, causes some minor property damage and gets a ticket," Sege says. "One parenting technique is to yell at the kid and ground them for 12 years or whatever, and go ahead and pay the ticket and fix the property damage. Another approach might be to talk the child about it and facilitate him or her raising enough money to pay the ticket and pay the property damage."
  • Treat one another with respect and listen to your teen's input.
  • Be flexible, even if it means not going through with a contract in the first place. "I see such a wide range of families and circumstances, and for some families contracts would frankly be absurd, but for many families in limited circumstances they are a good idea," says Sege.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Robert Sege, MD, PhD, The Floating Hospital for Children, New England Medical Center, Boston. Carol Maxym, PhD, private therapist, Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

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