Dear Dr. Jann: For the last year my 11-year-old son has come home from his father’s, telling me that his dad said that he can choose where he wants to live when he turns 12. His birthday is next month, and as it approaches our son is becoming more and more anxious. He tells me he does not want to anything to change, but he’s afraid to tell his father–and now he’s telling me he doesn’t want to go to his dad’s. What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: Even though battles over a child’s affection or even child support concerns fuel this kind of interaction, I like to think that when parents say things like, “You can choose to live with me when you are 12,” they’re telling their child that they love them and want their child with them.
However, to a child stuck right in the middle, it translates to just the opposite. “You can live with me at a certain age,” puts incredible pressure on children who are forced to go back and forth between the two people they love the most. As a result, as the age comes near, the child starts to feel anxious and begins to balk at going back and forth—even though he adores both parents. It’s simply impossible to “choose.”
For the record, it is my understanding that a child cannot formally choose where he or she wants to live until he or she is 18, but at various ages, depending upon the state in which you live, a child can ask to be heard by a child custody mediator or a judge. The professionals are listening for why a child wants to live with one parent or the other. They consider the age of the child and weigh if it’s truly in the child’s best interest to make a change. Although parents sometimes forget, professionals know that children can be fickle. Next month when they are angry at the other parent, they might want to change custody again. Allowing a child to run the show when they don’t have the maturity to weigh the consequences can actually make them less secure and less prepared for the future.
As a child moves toward 18 they may want more of a voice about their living situation. But, a voice is not a choice. Kids, particularly older kids, must feel heard and feel like their desires are being considered at both homes. If only one parent is listening, that’s the parent the child will gravitate to. So, what’s good ex-etiquette?
Start by prompting your child’s other parent to “Put your child first.” (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1) Acknowledge your mutual interest in your child’s well-being and look for a compromise in his name. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #10, Look for the compromise).
Consider things like, would your son like to spend more time with dad without the pressure of having to change his primary home? More dinner visits, possibly additional Saturday or Sunday afternoons? Would longer blocks of time in the Summer allow Dad and son to spend more quality time together? Consider the options in your child’s name, then make an agreement and stick to it. That’s good ex-etiquette.