Until now your kids have lived with you and seen your ex on alternate weekends. Now it turns out your ex and his partner live closer to the high school your daughter will attend and she’s raised the idea of moving to their house. Or maybe you’ve had joint custody, but now your 13-year-old says she’s fed up with switching houses every week.
Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon for young teens to request a change in their custody arrangement, says Markham, Ont., child psychologist Cheryl Noble. Although this can be tricky to navigate for former spouses who may have difficulty communicating, it’s important for their kids that divorced parents try and set aside their own biases and work together.
It’s not always easy. You may be reluctant to overturn an arrangement that’s working well; there may be legal issues; or the two of you may be worried your child’s desire for a change is a way of avoiding challenges in her relationship with one of you.
The most important thing parents can do in this situation is to listen carefully to their children to determine what’s driving the request, says Rachel Birnbaum, an associate professor of social work, who specializes in issues related to separation and divorce, at the University of Western Ontario in London. “You need to listen between the lines and get the full picture,” adds Noble. You might be hearing, “Dad won’t let me use the computer.” But is the issue really that your son is on the computer way past bedtime every night?
Is it that she’s tired of packing up and resettling every week? Or is your daughter raising the issue because she’s in conflict with your new partner? If so, spend time with her and listen to what she has to say. Don’t defend your new partner. Let your daughter know you’re there for her and that your new relationship will never take the place she has in your life, says Noble.
If you and your ex-partner decide a change is the best option, here are some suggestions from Noble for working up a parenting plan:
Discuss your child’s strengths, challenges and basic needs Does he need a lot of sleep, or forget to eat during the day? Is he struggling with science this semester? Does he have a medical condition that requires careful monitoring? How will the two of you work together to provide consistency when it comes to rules about dating or homework?
Commit to ongoing communication as parents Your goal is to continue to work as a team. Agree to share information about your child by meeting or exchanging phone calls. This is especially important for kids this age, who may be drawn to risky behaviour, like drinking alcohol, says Noble. How will the two of you work to keep her safe? For instance, are you willing to pick her up at a friend’s house on Friday night even if it’s not your weekend?
If one parent isn’t seeing as much of the child, agree to facilitate communication Children learn how to have good relationships with other people from the ones they have with their parents, says Noble. “The bottom line: Don’t disrespect the other parent to your child.”
Let your child know that the two of you are cheering from the sidelines for her Be clear that you’re willing to look at another change in the arrangement if the first plan doesn’t work out. Comments like “If you leave this house, don’t bother coming back” aren’t helpful, says Noble. It’s better to say, “You want to live with your dad? Let’s give it a try.”
Some parents are able to rework a custody plan on their own; others may need the help of a counsellor or mediator. But, says Birnbaum, “we know from the literature that while children want their views to be known in these situations, that doesn’t mean they want their wishes to be the sole determinant.” That’s up to the parents.
Sound complicated? It can be, and it may even take some trial and error. But, says Noble, “I’ve seen two couples come together as a foursome to figure it out. That’s ideal. It can work.”
When parents feel rejected
It’s hard not to feel broken-hearted when your child tells you he doesn’t want to live with you anymore. As hard as it is, it’s important to focus on what’s best for your child, says Markham, Ont., child psychologist Cheryl Noble, and to avoid making your child feel guilty. If living arrangements do change, part of the challenge will be to figure out how to nurture your relationship with your child when you won’t be seeing as much of her.
Parents in these circumstances often need to talk to someone — a friend who’s been through it or a counsellor — who can support them through the feelings of loss and period of transition.