Parenting teens is tricky. Some parents, worried their teens will make bad decisions, micromanage their behavior. They set a slew of rules and parent with iron fists, lectures and fear-based tactics.
This, however, tends to drive teens away and disconnects them from their parents. In the second edition of his book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful and Resilient Teens and Tweens, clinical psychologist and parenting expert John Duffy, Ph.D, advocates for a different approach.
Of course, discipline is important for teens. It provides structure and boundaries, writes Duffy. But he distinguishes effective discipline from punishment. Punishment triggers arguments and cuts communication. Effective discipline, however, “comes from a calm, centered, loving place.”
Discipline that comes from anger, he writes, only models for your teen precisely the behavior you don’t want to see them perpetuate.
Effective discipline also includes clear-cut rules and consequences. It separates the behavior from the child. Duffy gives this example: “That was a foolish decision, and I expect you to make smarter choices in the future” versus “You idiot! I can’t believe you would do something so stupid!”
It also means using conversations with your teen to discuss their decision, connect and convey that you believe in them and their ability to make good decisions in the future, Duffy writes in The Available Parent.
In the book Duffy includes a valuable technique for effectively disciplining your teen: a behavioral contract. Duffy first learned about this idea from a couple who use this with their teen. Since then he’s suggested it to many other parents.
Specifically, a behavioral contract lists common transgressions along with their consequences. This way everyone — both the parents and teen — is clear on what constitutes a problematic behavior and the consequences for violating a rule.
According to Duffy, this also minimizes conflict and negative communication and cultivates trust and competence. It gives parents and teens more time and opportunities to enjoy each other’s company.
Here are tips for creating a behavioral contract with your teen.
- Include common transgressions, such as violating curfew, drinking alcohol and not completing homework.
- Make sure transgressions are nonnegotiable behaviors, which involve your teen’s health or safety, or a behavior that’s important to you.
- Avoid listing more than six or seven transgressions.
- Create the contract together. Your teen is more likely to follow the contract and take it seriously if they have a say in how it’s constructed.
- List the behavior, followed by the specific consequences.
- Consider having fun with the contract. The family who created the contract included legal jargon, signatures and negotiations. They also create one contract per year, starting with the school year.
If you’d like to recreate the contract, here’s an excerpt from The Available Parent.
“The following is a behavioral contract between ________ and his parents _________ and __________. This contract has been entered into willingly, openly, and without undue force or coercion. The purpose of this agreement is to best ensure ______’s health and safety and to provide clarity of consequences for other nonnegotiable behaviors, to avoid any miscommunication, and to free up our time together for other stuff. This document is in no way to be interpreted as a lack of faith or trust in __________.
That stated, should ___________ choose to engage in any of the following behaviors, we all agree that the consequence(s) delineated is (are) reasonable given the nature of the contract infraction. As such, no discussion is required following any infraction other than reference to this document.
Following is a list of behaviors and their agreed-upon consequences: …”
Disciplining your teen may feel like you’re traversing some rocky terrain. But having clearcut rules and consequences — whether written or unwritten — can be tremendously helpful for you and them.
Learn more about Duffy’s available parenting approach in this piece.