Behavior Contracting 101

Parenting a teenager

Behavior Contracting 101

Parenting an adolescent is challenging. While your child is striving for more independence (and it is important to offer them some), the need to enforce clear and reasonable expectations is crucial to shaping behaviors.

Adolescence is a developmental period when exploration and testing limits is common. When negative behaviors start to surface, it is important to address them quickly and skillfully.

Following the tips below will help in such a case and support in reducing or eliminating the negative behaviors and increasing the positive.

1. Communication is Key

It is important to clearly and concisely communicate your expectations to your adolescent. Behavioral expectations should be as concrete and specific as possible.

For example, using any of the following:

  • “We would like to see you get up in the morning for school with only one reminder.”
  • “We would like to see you be on time for school at least X out of the 5 days per week.”
  • “We would like you to be honest with us and will not tolerate any lying.”

More ambiguous requests (for example, something like “be more responsible”) provides too many opportunities for failure. When relaying your expectations, brevity helps to avoid overloading and facilitates listening and understanding. In order to remain brief and clear, it may be helpful to have your expectations written down ahead of time.

2. Be Open to Negotiation

Parenting a teenIt is often effective to present some alternatives or options to your requests. This sends the message that you are willing to problem solve together with your adolescent, offering them a sense of control and ownership. An alternative might look something like this: “We want you home every night at 8:30pm, or would you prefer coming home four nights at 8pm and staying out one night until 10pm?”

Your adolescent may be more willing to comply when they feel like they have had a say in the decision-making. Being open to negotiation can also help ensure that the expectations set are attainable. You want to make sure you are setting your teen up for success!

3. Rewards & Consequences

After establishing expectations, it is necessary to have pre-determined rewards for positive behavior and consequences for negative behavior. Determining these ahead of time sets predictability and will help your adolescent recognize cause and effect (if I do this, then this will happen). Specificity is important here, as well as matching specific interests to what is important to your child. Timing is also important. Rewards and consequences are most effective when they are immediate.


Being consistent with overall expectations and rewards or consequences is crucial. Follow through, follow through, follow through! When there is no guarantee that a reward will follow a positive behavior or a consequence will follow a negative behavior, your teen is more likely to test the limits.

Authored by:  Jessica Oppenheimer, LCSW