Add To Cart

Section 6
Tools for Writing Rules
That Can Be Used in Parent-Adolescent Relationships

Question 6 | Test | Table of Contents

Read content below or listen to audio.
Left click audio track to Listen; Right click to "Save..." mp3

In the last section, we discussed a common adolescent outburst in five levels and ways to diffuse it.  These five levels of confrontation were: whining and complaining; stubborn refusal; verbal abuse; threats of violence; and acts of violence. 

I have noticed, as you may have as well, that the battles between mother and daughter, father and son, originate because one person will make assumptions about the other. For instance a mother can assume that her daughter knows not to drink or come home late, or a son may assume his father won’t care if he borrows the car for one night. Although these may sound obvious to some of us, these sorts of assumptions happen quite often in a family with a disruptive teen. To help these families, I encourage them to write a Family Agreement Contract. 

In this section, we will discuss the three key steps involved in writing rules within parent-adolescent relationships.  These steps include:  streamlining the problems; creating concrete rules; and creating a well-written consequence.

3 Steps to Writing an Effective Family Rules Agreement Contract

Step #1. Streamlining the Problems
The first step in writing a contract is streamlining the problems.  It becomes quite apparent that families who have a great deal of conflict arising between them cannot tackle all the problems at once.  It is just too exhausting and the bigger problems will not get the attention they need. 

Carol and Michael were having significant arguments with their son Jim.  Carol stated, "From the time I get up to the time I go to bed, it’s a battle.  Jim is disrespectful and curses me all the time.  He refuses to clean his room or go to bed on time and leaves the house without permission.  Half way through the day, I am burned out."  To try and begin to create a contract with their son, I asked Carol and Michael to each create a list of the most important problems that keep occurring between them and their son. 

5 Questions regarding the Family Rules
I asked them to keep the following Five Questions in mind:

1. Is the problem I am about to write down really important to me?
2. Could I let this problem go?
3. What would happen if I just waited?
4. Could I lose by doing nothing?
5. Is the problem a safety concern?

Once each parent had written their own list, I asked them to combine their lists.  If there are any discrepancies, I asked them to come to some sort of consensus.  Carol and Michael came up with the following list of problems:

1. Leaves the house without permission.
2. Hits younger brother.
3. Drinks with his friends.

As you can see, the problems that Carol discussed, "not going to bed on time" and "refusing to clean room" are not on this list.  The pair has successfully streamlined their problems by eliminating those that may be arbitrary.

Step #2. Creating Concrete Rules
The second step is creating concrete rules.  I have found that many adolescents are able to undermine the contract if everything is not laid out word-for-word.  Dr. Scott Sells calls this the "literal disease" in which adolescents will use such familiar phrases as, "You didn’t say I couldn’t stay out until two.  You just said I had to come home on school nights." 

In a way, they are correct; Parents simply assume their adolescents understand the rule word for word.  In order to avoid the "literal disease," I asked Carol and Mike to make every rule clear and to define such actions that will incite a punishment.  For example, the problem "hits younger brother" was delineated in the following way:

Jim’s behavior toward his brother will be considered an act of violence if he does one of the following:

1. Pushes, shoves, hits, thumps, kicks, squeezes his brother or anyone else.
2. Threatens to hurt his brother or anyone else.
3. Any behaviors not on this list that may cause physical injury to someone else.

They next went on to say that if Jim continued to commit the above actions, he would be punished.  Think of your Mike and Carol.  Have they become a victim of an adolescent under the influence of the "literal disease"?  How could they improve the rules in the household so that their adolescent could not find a loophole?

Step #3. Creating a Well-Written Consequence
In addition to streamlining problems and creating concrete rules, the third step is creating a well-written consequence.  Usually, for first-time offences, I ask that parents use the usual type of punishments such as grounding. 

However, if an adolescent becomes a repeat offender, there are ten consequences that parents have found work most efficiently on their adolescent.  These parents have reported to me that they have, in a sense, "tested" the waters on almost all of these punishments until they have found the right one.  Also, you will find that some of these "consequences" are positive ones which are ways for the parent to motivate the adolescent into becoming more responsible. 

The Top 10 Consequences

1. Money - giving or taking it away.
2. Telephone - cutting off social contact from your adolescent’s most important allies is a real attention-getter.
3. Freedom - loss of mobility in their choices will motivate your adolescent to try harder to avoid it.
4. Clothing - by taking away certain outfits, you ultimately take away your adolescent’s mode of expression.
5. Cars - make your adolescent take the public transportation or stay at home.  This also creates a sense of humility in realizing that they still are pretty dependent on you.
6. Loosening Restrictions - When a parent modifies past rules, this communicates your willingness to treat your adolescent like an adult.
7. Trust - Earning and keeping trust with you is very important to your adolescent.  Finding ways for adolescents to earn back trust slowly can make all the difference.
8. Appearance - Some of my other clients have accomplished tarnishing their adolescent’s appearance in public by humiliating them, either through the parent’s own actions or their clothing.
9. Materialism - Try removing some of your teen’s favorite music or video games.
10. Spending Time - Many parents don’t realize that their adolescents do value connection with their parents.  This includes your adolescent.

Carol and Michael tried out several of these on Jim until they found his weakness:  loosening restrictions.  Michael stated, "We realized that he had actually been doing quite well, and, to encourage him, we gave him a later curfew, which he holds to.  He even said ‘thanks’ when we told him."  I also emphasize to my clients that enforcing the consequences is even more important than writing them down.  Without enforcement, adolescents will begin to think that they can bend the rules.  Think of your Carol and Michael.  Could they benefit from "Creating a Family Agreement Contract"?

In this section, we discussed the three key steps involved in writing rules within parent-adolescent relationships.  These steps included:  streamlining the problems; creating concrete rules; and creating a well-written consequence.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article Reference:
Coffey, J. K., Xia, M., & Fosco, G. M. (2020). When do adolescents feel loved? A daily within-person study of parent–adolescent relations. Emotion. Advance online publication.

Kapetanovic, S., Skoog, T., Bohlin, M., & Gerdner, A. (2019). Aspects of the parent–adolescent relationship and associations with adolescent risk behaviors over time. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(1), 1–11.

McKenna, S., Hassall, A., O'Kearney, R., & Pasalich, D. (2020). Gaining a new perspective on the quality of parent–adolescent relationships from adolescent speech samples. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.

Van Petegem, S., Baudat, S., & Zimmermann, G. (Aug 2019). Forbidden to forbid? Towards a better understanding of autonomy and rules within parent-adolescent relationships. Canadian Psychology, 60(3), 194-202.

What are three steps in writing rules that can be used in parent-adolescent relationships? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Table of Contents