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Behavior Contracts

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reported in their sixth annual national teen substance abuse survey that parents who are "'hands-on' – parents who have established a household culture of rules and expectations for their teens' behavior – raise children who are less at risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs." In addition, they said "Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens in 'hands-on' households are more likely to have an excellent relationship with their parents than teens with 'hands-off' parents." The survey concluded that, "parents should be parents to their teenagers, not pals."

Behavior contracts are one of the simplest but most overlooked techniques available to help parents through the difficult preteen and teenage years. When used properly, written contracts can be incredibly successful in preventing or stopping unwanted behavior.

Behavior contracts work because all children want and need structure in their lives. Written agreements will bring a calming effect to them because they know the rules and their consequences and find that very reassuring. In addition, written contracts will reduce the number of disagreements between parents and their kids because the rules were previously discussed and agreed upon in advance.

Out-of-Control 14-Year-Old

Hi Mark

I need help...

My son is 14 and I am finding it extremely difficult to live with him...a lot of the time he is disrespectful and rude, he has told me in the past that he can do what he wants and a lot of the time he does...When he is getting something or things are going his way he is nice as pie but if not... who knows??? We do have some good times, but it feels like most of the time there are problems...When he was on a curfew he was home a lot in the evenings we enjoyed cooking together and sometimes he helps around the house especially if he wants money.

He has stolen money from me, stolen bottles of alcohol, he has been taken to the hospital twice for being inebriated. He has been out for days an end without letting me know where he is...He even stole my car one night... One time along time ago he pulled a knife on me, he has smashed in our front door...he has scratched graffiti into lots of doors windows, etc... around our apartment. He has torn up photos of my husband and I and personal photos of my husbands.... and it goes on and on...

Is it wrong to ask him to leave home at 14? Part of me wishes he would go to live somewhere else and then I feel sorry for him as I am all is has... sometimes I want to run away from home....He has been to the refuge a couple of times.

It is Sunday night and he has just come home for the first time since Friday morning. I reported him missing to the police & the Department of Community Services on Saturday morning. I have taken his new shoes away and there will be no TV, Telephone or Computer for 3 days...

I find it difficult to know what to do re: discipline as I would like to say no money for 3 days but then what does he eat for lunch? And how does he get to school? I recently bought him a bike and he has been riding it to school, is it appropriate to take this off him as well during this grounding?

Only 10 days ago he was out late in the night against my wishes …he was followed and sexually assaulted by a man...we reported this incident to the police, etc...This doesn't seem to have affected him as far as going out is concerned.

In the last year he has had over 100 incidents with the police. He is currently on a suspended sentence and probation for some recent charges of malicious damage and breaking into a car, etc....As I am sure you can imagine it causes a lot of tension in the home, my husband who is not his father he gets angry with me because he thinks I am too soft...My son tells me he doesn't want my husband to have anything to do with him, he says he is not his family...they have had problems with aggression and fighting in the past...I want peace and harmony in our home...

An example that happened this evening is my son arrived home as I mentioned earlier I asked him to come into the kitchen to talk to me he said no you come here...I asked him again he said the same thing...My husband got angry with me because he said I need to pull my son into line. I understand were my husband is coming from but when he gets angry with me it just causes more friction and it's too much...

My son's relationship with his biological father is fraught and conflictual. We don't have any other family in the same state...

Please help...



Hi S.,

Your husband is clearly sending you the proper message. I’m going to be a bit tough on you here, so please do not get upset with me. To cut to the chase: You’ve obviously spoiled your son rotten – and now you’re paying the price. But it’s not too late.

Please go through the Online Version of the eBook – and listen to ALL the audio (if you’ve already gone through it once, then do it again, because the eBook has most of the solutions to the numerous problems you’ve listed in your email). Do session #1 this week (along with session #1 assignments), do session 2 next week, and so on.

Re: your husband’s involvement. I’m going to be tough on him now: You, S., have to be the sole disciplinarian. Your husband needs to (a) stay out of your way and (b) keep his mouth shut. He’s not helping matters - in fact - he’s making a bad problem worse (I’m sure he would agree). If you will toughen up a bit, then he will not feel as frustrated, helpless and angry about the whole situation.

Bottom line: I’m on the same page with your husband here. You must get serious with these strategies or you may end up losing more than your son.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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How Do They Earn Their Way Off Discipline?

I understand what you are saying and I agree with your analysis. This is what we did for many years when E___ was very small. I never felt safe leaving the 2 kids alone. The last few days I have been successful in keeping my 'poker face' although i see that I have to work on being consistent and keeping to the said consequence. Here is a scenario that just played out. My kids say I am being unfair. Could you please give me some feedback and any advice? This afternoon I was taking my kids B___ 11 yo (the intense one) and E___ 7 yo to the grocery store and said we would get an ice cream. As I stopped for gas they got into an argument and started hitting and punching each other. I have recently put into place a consequence of a half hour in their room for any throwing or physical violence. So I said that we would have to go home so they could have their time out. After I finished paying I came back and they were calm and had 'made up' as they called it. (This is where I would usually back down and continue on our way.) I said that was nice but we were still going home which didn't go over well. They both started in on the verbal abuse (mostly B___) telling me how stupid and unreasonable I was, how they wished I was dead etc. I said if the disrespectful talk did not end they would be choosing to loose their privileges for the evening (computer time/movie night, boom box, trampoline and sprinkler). They did not stop so I said they had chosen to loose their privileges. They continued all the way home but I gave them no more consequences. They asked why I was being so strict, and I said things weren't working well before, I had not been consistent. When we got home they started hitting each other again so they got another half hour in their rooms. Should I have ignored that and left it at one half hour? Should I have just ignored the disrespectful talk (at home I could walk away or send Beckie for her time out but in the car I couldn't see how to do that) or just taken away one privilege? 

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