After a divorce, the whole family has to grow accustomed to the child custody arrangement. You might share custody with your spouse, but that does not necessarily mean you have exactly the same amount of time.
What happens when years after your agreed upon custody schedule has been in place, and your teenager says they want to live with the other parent – your ex-spouse? This is a common occurrence in divorced families, but hearing this can be incredibly emotional and stressful for parents.
Below are a few things that you must consider in this situation.
1. Be careful of your reaction
Although it is natural to feel upset, you must watch your reaction carefully. Rejecting or opposing your child’s request outright could make the situation worse. It could lead to a larger argument, and your child might become resentful or angry as well.
Take a few moments to regain composure, so you can discuss your child’s request calmly.
2. Listen to your child
It is important to respect your child’s opinion. Teenagers can often be fickle, but truly listen to what they have to say. You can share your concerns as well, but make sure you do so calmly and respectfully. For example, it is critical that you do not badmouth your ex-spouse when explaining your concerns. It is helpful to focus on using “I” statements.
3. Seek therapeutic intervention
While in certain cases a judge may have the ability to hear from an older child regarding their preferences, that does not make it appropriate in all cases. Children, even older children, should be shielded from the legal process as much as possible, and it is important that parents not empower teenagers to feel that they can make adult decisions about who they live with and how much time they spend with their parents.
To avoid this, it may be helpful to initiate therapy for the child in addition to family therapy, so that the child has a safe place to share their feelings. With the assistance of a neutral professional focused on repairing and strengthening relationships in the family unit, there is a better chance that the true reasons for the situation may come to light.
Perhaps an older teenager wants to be with the parent who has the least restrictive rules, or a teenage girl going through puberty suddenly wants to have more time with her mother. In both situations, the child’s feelings are valid, but both may not necessarily warrant parents entertaining a change in the custody schedule.
4. Include the other parent when possible
Try to maintain open communication with the other parent and share your thoughts and feelings about what is going on. Consider having a meeting, ideally with a family therapist or co-parenting counselor, to discuss the logistics and details of potential changes.
In many cases, it might be possible to compromise or negotiate a new custody arrangement that meets everyone’s needs.
The exception to this would be a situation where the other parent is intentionally damaging or alienating your relationship with the child, and the present situation is a result of that parent’s interference and bad actions. Because this is immensely harmful to children of any age, and is often extremely difficult to prove, you should seek therapeutic intervention from a provider who is skilled in working with high-conflict and divorced families. A unique skill set is required to provide treatment to the child and family when these dynamics are at play.
If the other parent opposes appropriate therapeutic interventions, then you may need to consult with an attorney about how to move forward.
It can be stressful dealing with the thoughts and feelings of your child or teenager, especially if those thoughts and feelings feel like a rejection of your parental relationship with them. It is key to avoid putting children or teenagers in the role of decision-maker, and to attempt to deal with these issues in a therapeutic setting versus a legal one when at all possible.