By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
In divorced and remarried families, there are often a lot of challenges and rivalries that may prompt a child to want to change residences. Many of my divorced clients ask me if they should allow their children to pick their residence. This is a special concern if it means splitting up children.
For instance, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to become unhappy with one or both of their parents’ restrictions, and they are more likely than younger children to express their preferences about changing which house they live in. Parents beware! Try not to be blindsided by this request or take it personally. Be sure to discuss this issue with as much indifference as you can toward their other parent and try not to take it personally.
At times, children and teenagers may threaten a parent with moving to the other house if they don’t get their way. Laurie, age fourteen, shouts; “No one understands me in this house. I’m going to live with dad.” The wise response is something like: “Let’s sit down and talk about this later when you’ve calmer, I’m sure we can work something out.”
Truth be told, when children request a change in their residence, he/she is often unaware that it could impact their relationship with their sibling (s) if they are split up. Some experts agree that siblings can be a support to each other during times of turmoil. Life in a divorced or remarried family can be easier when children have a buddy to navigate changes with.
Keep in mind that another common scenario that arises in co-parenting situations is when an adolescent is sharing close to equal time with both parents and requests a change in residence because he/she has a falling out with one parent or a stepparent. Or in some cases, they may want to live closer to their friends or school.
As a parent, it’s crucial that you protect your child from being burdened with the anguish of being stuck in the middle between two hostile parents or choosing sides. For instance, children may feel disloyal to their biological parent when a stepparent comes on the scene. They may even feel so frustrated or angry that try to avoid or blame the parent who remarriages. When this happens, it can cause turmoil and even estrangement if the feelings are not processed and dealt with.
According to psychologist, Dr. Joshua Coleman, splitting up children and letting them choose their residence can also create loyalty conflicts for children because divorce often means a fundamental reshaping of alliances. Dr. Coleman writes: “Divorce may introduce new adults into children’s lives – adults who can cause the child to feel disloyal to the parent who’s not there; adults who may compete for the love, attention, and resources from the parent who is; adults who generally have less investment in the child’s well-being than the biological parent.”
So what is the best approach for parents to take? In the best case scenario, parents should encourage their children to spend close to equal time with their other parent and not do anything to interfere with or obstruct their relationship with their other parent. Parents who feel wronged in a marriage or rejected may interfere with the other parent’s desire to have an ongoing relationship with the child.
Generally, custody and residency decisions are better left up to parents. But at times, parents may consult their children or be swayed by them when they voice preferences. Often age twelve is considered to be the age when the opinion of the child is given more weight by courts. However, the maturity of the child and the unique needs of family members can impact this factor.
5 tips to help parents deal with a child’s request to change their residence:
1. Gather information and be cautious. Assess the reason for the request and whether or not it involves splitting up siblings. Would the change be in the best interests of all children? Attempt to be indifferent to your ex and try not to take your child’s request personally.
2. Protect your child or teenager from being stuck in the middle between his or her parents. Be mindful of divided loyalties a child may experience if they are put in the middle or strongly influenced by one of their parents.
3. Assess your child’s maturity level. Ask yourself: Is my child mature enough to handle having significant input into the decision about their residency? If they are, be sure to get their input but inform them that you and your ex will make the final decision.
4. Communicate with you ex-spouse in a cordial and businesslike way. Are you and their other parent communicating respectfully about a change in your child’s parenting plan? Can you present a united front to your child?
5. Seek professional help if needed. If you cannot agree with your ex, it’s wise to turn to a family counselor or mediator to help you with this important decision.
According to divorce experts, parents are wise to communicate in a clear way with each other and deliver a consistent message when their child or adolescent voices a preference to change their living arrangement. Divorce expert, Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW writes: “Parents are always cautioned against involving their children in custody, residency, or access decisions.”
For instance, Tim, age ten, had been living with his father full-time and spending every other weekend with his mother since his parents’ split when he was seven years old. Suddenly, his dad, David, announced he was marrying his long-term partner – sending Tim into a tailspin. He became so distressed about this news that he began threatening to move out and go live with his mom.
Fortunately, David and her ex-wife, Erika, agreed to sit down over a cup of coffee to discuss Tim’s request so they could come up with an agreement that would meet some of Tim’s needs and work well for all family members. In the end, they came to a consensus that they were both comfortable with. While not all divorced couples are civil enough to adopt this approach, David and Erika both felt a strong commitment to co-parenting and were willing to work together to find a reasonable solution for their son.
Ultimately, David and Erika agreed that it would be in Tim’s best interest to have him spend more time with his mother until the dust settled and so they designed a new parenting plan. When Tim’s parents told him of their decision, he was initially resistant, but later agreed to try this new plan for a three month period. Ultimately, he felt happier having close to equal time at both houses and adjusted to the addition of a stepmother in his life.
While parents are wise to consult with their children, ultimately, they should be the ones to determine what’s in his/her best interests. Indeed, parents are wise to consider the issue of changing their child’s residence and splitting up their children cautiously. By doing this, parents maintain their authority and control while still showing encouragement and support to their child. Consulting a counselor or mediator can be highly beneficial if families are having difficulties resolving these matters among themselves.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.