by Stephen Willis, M.MFT, LPC, LMFT, NCC
When parents have their first child, they tend to prepare quite carefully for that little one. Parenting stress beings immediately. They read all the books; they worry if the child is a meeting all the expected developmental tasks, and they continually consult doctors, friends and experts concerning their child. They carry this on as the child moves into the toddler stage.
When they have a second child, they are often less scrupulous. By the third or fourth child, they view themselves as experts (or, sometimes, failures or cynics). By the time their first child reaches 12 years old, they have pretty much decided to parent by the seat of their pants (oftentimes, from the couch, yelling down the hall).
The teenage years have been called “the second toddlerhood.” Teenagers seek independence (just as toddlers do), and parents work to keep them safe and slow them down. What if there was a way to lessen the conflict and prepare growing children for adulthood? I’m going to briefly describe a way to do just that. It is called a Parent/Teenager Contract.
Just before your child turns 12, you sit down with him or her and lay out the next 6 years of life at home. The goal is that by the time the child is a senior in high school; most decisions will be made by him or her. Instead of going wild in college, because it is the first time of experiencing freedom, your child will have already experienced freedom at home. This does not eliminate conflict or parenting stress, but it reduces it significantly. You are telling your preteen that parents and child are on the same page. It is a twist on the idiom of “taking the wind out of their sails.” It is “taking the sail out of their wind.” You want the same thing that he or she does: to be safely independent.
Age 12 is a good time to set this up. They are increasingly becoming abstract in their thinking. You want to first consider what a child needs to know before leaving home.
They should be able to:
There are life transitions that come within those years:
Parents realize that these are coming and need to provide a structure for the teenager. Each year, starting at 12, the child is given new freedoms and new responsibilities. For example: at age 12, the child may have a later bedtime than before. Added responsibilities may be to sort and wash clothes and prepare a meal for the family, once a month (so he or she can be learning how to follow recipes and make some simple meals). Responsibilities are not to be just extra chores. They need to be helpful tasks that move your child toward maturity and independence. From the beginning, the freedom given is clearly connected to responsibilities. If the son or daughter is not willing to fulfill the responsibilities, then the freedom will be forfeited.
You will find that it is much easier to negotiate issues having to do with dating and driving at age 12 than 16. You write it all down: bedtimes, dating age, when he or she can drive, all the responsibilities that come with each year, and (if you have the courage) how the child will be allowed to make decisions about curfews in their last year of high school (or some parents may make it the last semester of high school). They need to understand that traffic tickets, drugs and other “mortal sins” will have consequences (and spell those out).
When you have finished writing out the contract and explained it and let the child read it, offer to let them offer some changes (that’s how contracts work – they are agreed upon by both parties). Generally, there are no protests. They look at all those freedoms and don’t see any problems. Have places for the parents and the child to sign and date. Give the child a copy and file away the original.
There is an advantage for the parents in this in that they don’t have to negotiate throughout the teenage years. They can always say, “You signed this. We asked you if you wanted any changes.” There is a value to the child because it keeps the parents from hedging on their agreement. It is common for a parent to become clingy and restrictive when a child gets close to leaving the nest.
There are a couple of other side benefits that will help with parenting stress in different ways. The younger children who complain, “It’s not fair that they get to stay up later than me,” can be told that they will get the same contract when they get that age. Also, it is common for the older child to have to fight for every freedom and see it as unfair that his or her siblings were able to have freedoms much earlier.