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No Such Thing As Healthy Relational Contract

As a therapist, I often have families and couples who come in and inform me that they have a contract, signed, that their child is not following. Sometimes another therapist has helped them come up with this contract, and other times they have crafted it all on their own. I have seen contracts for everything, including getting good grades, finishing chores, changing attitudes, and behaving in a better way. While every contract has been different, they all have one thing in common. They do not work. Parents love them because they give hope and their common sense tells them that a contract is binding and permanent. It feels so good to have a teenager agree and promise to do better. I even think some teens believe that they are going to follow the contracts too.

In the many years of practice and the hundreds of families I have worked with, I have not yet come across a single relational contract that has worked in the long run. These things are tricky, however. In the beginning, they always seem to work. Kind of like token economy (Punishment and Reward), these contracts usually seem to change the behavior and the chaos in the home for about two weeks. That initial change becomes the hope that parents hang on to leading them down the insanity rabbit hole of trying to make the contract work.

Contracts are resentment builders and chaos prolongers. Rely on healthy boundaries. Your child doesn’t need to agree, and if your boundaries are healthy, you don’t need to remind them every second. Following through does not require their agreement. Relationships should be treated like relationships. Leave contracts for business dealings. Do you really think it is a good idea to have a business deal with your teenager? If you answered yes, you have an exceptionally compliant child, or you are deep in denial.


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