Being the parent of a teen is tough. It’s a confusing, hormonal period of constant change. Many young people experiment with new identities or behaviors. And often, teenagers, driven by a heightened need for novelty, self expression and control leading them to act out and rebel, causing problems at home and school.

If you are the parent, guardian, or teacher of a teenager, pat yourself on the back. Dealing with teenagers isn’t an exact science, there’s no manual and everyone, parents and professionals make mistakes and experience breakdowns in communication.

What’s Normal and Abnormal Teenage Behavior?

One of the hardest things for parents raising teenagers? Knowing the difference between normal teenage rebelliousness and unhealthy, abnormal teenage behavior. It’s normal for teens to become surly, withdrawn, and — let’s be honest — obnoxious. But how can you tell if a teen is being distant or showing the warning signs of anxiety and depression? How can you distinguish typical teenage behavior from dangerous red flags?

  • Listen: teens are constantly communicating with adults, but too often we’re distracted not ever paying full attention. Teens know this and will not tell us the most important concerns on their minds and hearts if we’re not fully tuned in. Listen, listen and listen even more. Ask questions for clarification. Admit you’re being annoying, but tell them that its important to you to really understand. “Look, I know I’m a nag and I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you really want, even though I really don’t think it is, but I do want to understand what you’re going through. You say “nuthin” but everything in me says “somethin!”
  • Look: are there drastic changes in behavior, grades, friends, social activities and other behaviors? Are their consistent eruptions of anger? Does the intensity of the teen’s reaction consistently not match the level of what triggered the reaction? Are their sudden, drastic changes in appearance, weight, style?
  • Ask: It has always taken a village to raise teenagers but today very few live in the village. We must intentionally recreate the village. Ask teachers, ministers, friends parents, your friends who share your values, experts and anyone else who knows your teenager or will listen if they think what you’re seeing is normal or is it a problem. Look for what’s consistent in their verbal responses and their facial expressions when you describe the behaviors or changes that concern you.

It’s easy to ignore warning signs and dismiss teen mental health. But roughly 20% of teens will experience depression, which research indicates increases the risk of a teen attempting suicide 12 times. In 2013, 10.6% of young people aged 12 to 17 (2.6 million teens) had one or more major depressive episode. Then there are other common teen mental health issues, like self-harm. Experts warn that 95% of Americans with eating disorders are young people between the ages of 12 and 25.

The Teen Behavior Contract

After identifying abnormal teenage behavior, some parents choose to use a teen behavior contract. This is a popular tool for parents dealing with teenagers.

Sometimes called contingency contracts or behavioral contracts, these are written agreements between adults and teenagers.

Essential Ingredients

  • Parent promises: In the most effective contracts, parents first state what they promise to give the teen. For example you might include “We promise to provide food, clothing, shelter and basic necessities. We promise to listen, even when we are busy. We promise to support you in attaining the healthy goals you set.” 
  • Teen promises: the teen agrees to the behavioral expectations of the parents. It is critical to discuss these before finalizing the contract and signing it. Getting teens buy in and participation in developing the agreement increases their liklihood of following through exponentially. 
  • Clear Boundaries and Stipulations: these include dates and times, but describe as accurately as possible what the desired behavior looks like. “There are to be no clothes, food wrappers, drink bottles on the floor of my room at any time. Clothes are to be in one of three places: on my body, in my closet or dresser or in the dirty clothes hamper.” “I promise not to bring any illeagal substances, including alcohol into my family’s home. If I am found with said substances, I agree to give up my privilege to drive and socialize after school ends.” 
  • Clear, relevant consequences: If clothing is found in any place other than the three above mentioned locations, said clothing will be held for 3 weeks, and cannot be replaced. Making the teen clean your car does not help reinforce their cleanliness, it punishes them, which is not the best method for helping teens produce disired behaviors. 
  • Check with other like minded parents: ask a parent friend who shares your values and has similar expectations for their child to read over the contract and ask them to find at least one thing to improve, add or delete. 

Many teens will sign anything to shut their parents up, but in my experience signing their name to the document increases their awareness, accountability, and makes the consequences for misbehavior more real.

Of course, it’s just as important to deal with the underlying causes of the problem behavior. But as you work to understand, a teen behavior contract can sometimes be an effective way to get your teen back on the right path.