Discipline at its Best: Build an Adolescent Responsibility ContractParents
Build Responsibility Through Effective Discipline
Our goal as parents is to raise responsible, self-sufficient, young people who have self-control. Those who will do the right thing even when no one is watching. We shape our children from the day they are born. We give them the security that comes from love and the ability to navigate the world that comes from our guidance. When we discipline wisely, our children thrive.
A key to understand how best to discipline begins with the word “discipline” itself. Discipline means “to teach” or “to guide.” Effective discipline allows our children to learn how to control their actions and to develop the inner motivation to do the right thing.
But discipline is not about controlling our children. When we make commands from a top-down approach — “You’ll do as I say! Because I said so!” — they might do as we ask in the short term but they do not learn long-term lessons. When we punish out of anger, they rebel against us when we are not looking.
Make a Plan
We must partner with our tweens and teens to strategize how best to support them to grow. Together, we can develop a step-by-step plan that protects their safety and develops their growing sense of morality. By doing so, discipline will be easier, your relationship will strengthen, and your teen will appreciate being a part of the process. It’s never too late to start this strategy, but you may find it most effective to begin during the tween years (9-12) — when our children will be thrilled with recognition of their growing maturity.
Developing a plan together helps them understand exactly why our rules are in place. It also shows them that we respect their need for growth. Too often, during the teen years, we tend to focus on the negatives and we get into unhealthy habits such as nagging and threats. Having a clear plan is a good way of avoiding poor communication cycles.
Developing a plan may happen best when you meet as a family. These meetings can be in person or online. This approach brings people together even when separated by a distance.
Make it clear to your teens that you want to work together to build a plan that allows them to grow and gain more responsibilities. Approaching the discussion in this way may encourage your teens to come to the table with an open mind. Meeting regularly allows for opportunities to talk about other issues that will strengthen your family.
Consider scheduling regular meetings every 3 months. This gives ample time for adolescents to take action that demonstrates growing maturity, responsibility, and that shows they’re ready for expanded privileges.
Preparing Your Adolescent
This process is a wonderful way to support your adolescent’s ability to speak up for themselves. They’ll want to let you know what privileges they are ready for. But they must learn to thoughtfully consider what they can really handle and be reasonable in their requests. Let them know you’ll only agree to reasonable requests and that their best bet is to put forward a plan they can successfully follow through with. If they hold up their end of deal, they’ll know that they can gain more privileges. If they do poorly, they’ll know that they will lose privileges until they can prove themselves.
Our Youth Advisory Board board has developed a prep sheet — share it with your teens to help prepare them for these important conversations!
Building an Adolescent Responsibility Contract
Be prepared to discuss your overall goals for the contract. Consider including these important concepts:
- You are excited about your child growing up and your job is to make sure they do so wisely and safely
- Rules come from caring
- You invite your teen to partner with you because you want to be on the same page
- You will always listen to their wants, but it is for you to decide what you consider safe and reasonable
Encourage your teens to also state their goals. These might include things like: ”Notice that I’m growing up and can handle more;” or “I want you to learn to trust me more;” or “Allow me to make more of my own choices.”
State the Non-Negotiables:
Clearly state your “absolutes.” These are the rules that will never change. They are the limits that are in place for your teens’ safety. The boundaries they can not go beyond. For example, driving while impaired, being a passenger of an impaired driver, and drug use. As the contract changes, the non-negotiable rules remain. These are the staples that stay regardless of your evolving agreement.
Let your teens take the lead here. They can state the privileges they think they can handle. They may need some guidance into what’s considered a reasonable request. Some possibilities:
- Phone/Computer privileges
- Car privileges
- Going places independently
It is your job to determine if the request is reasonable or too far of a reach. Then you can put into place very specific guidance and boundaries. Let’s consider two examples:
- Curfew: Your fifteen-year-old requests a 9:30 pm curfew on weeknights and an 11:30 pm curfew on weekends. You assess whether this is reasonable and take into consideration the safety of your neighborhood after dark. You might determine this is allowable, provided the following:
- Phone Privileges: Your 11-year-old feels she is ready for a phone. Now’s the time to set very clear rules. Rules that don’t change over time and that reinforce the point when you think about growth and responsibility throughout adolescence. Your rules might include:
- She must respond to your texts or calls
- You reserve the right to check her phone activity if warranted
- She will turn on night settings so the phone does not interfere with her sleep
- She agrees to ongoing discussions about internet safety and self-protection including cyberbullying, thinking before posting, the lasting impact of online content, and avoiding online predators
- To be prepared in case of an emergency, she will always leave the tracker on. You will check in periodically, but promise not to spy
Get It in Writing
Write down all of the points you’ve agreed on. The adolescent’s thoughts should be on one side and the adult caregivers thoughts on the other. Even sign and date it. Having a clear “official” contract to return to will be helpful to avoid future disagreements.
When Things Go Well
The plan works best when teens select privileges they can handle. When they can easily live up to expectations. But they can also learn a lot if they’ve overreached. When they hear all that they need to do to maintain that privilege, they are forced to think hard about whether or not they are ready for it.
Remind your teens that when they demonstrate responsible behavior for 3 months you will revisit the contract and they will have an opportunity to ask for privileges to expand. This reinforces that there is a real benefit to following through on commitments.
When Things Don’t Go Well
Sometimes, there are the really serious problems like when one of your absolute rules is broken. In those cases, you jump in following all of your protective instincts to ensure your child is safe. You might find this piece with hints about when to jump in helpful under these challenging circumstances.
But many more cases will involve minor problems that stem from oversights or overreaching. For example, they might have come home twenty minutes late without having called with a reasonable excuse. You choose to revoke that privilege for a period of time until they demonstrate responsibility long enough to earn it back. You return curfew back to a time they successfully handled: “You did really well with an 8:45 pm curfew, so you’re back to that for 3 months.” Adjust the length of the consequence depending on how close you are to the next contract cycle and your child’s prior behavior.
This feels different than a punishment. Punishments, like grounding, make sense only if you can make a case that real dangers exist. Grounding for two weeks for being an hour late won’t make sense to teens. They’ll feel punished and controlled and won’t learn anything, so real discipline hasn’t occurred. On the other hand, consequences directly tied to their behavior do make sense. Allowing them to return to a place where they demonstrated responsible behavior helps them to understand they are in control of their lives. They learn that their actions have consequences.
You Know Your Child Best
You know best where to create boundaries or what privileges your child is ready for. All young people must expand privileges over time as a successful strategy to ensure healthy development. Our boundaries must reflect safety and morality. Safety is different for everyone. It must take into account the neighborhood, peer group, and family circumstances. Similarly, individual differences must be considered. Thoughtfulness, impulse control, and likelihood to avoid unhealthy influences make a difference to how closely we monitor. In all cases, we parent with a reign in each hand. One loosens to allow our children to grow, one is ready to be tightened in case you need to draw them back from danger.
There’s always a chance your teens will fail at times. Having an agreed-upon plan for how to help them recover and restore their journey towards responsibility will make your job easier. They will know exactly what they need to do and what you expect of them. Discipline is a necessary and challenging part of parenting. The effort put into building a contract helps you effectively guide your child.