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Adolescents and child custody CHANGING CUSTODY

A stepmother writes:

I am both a mother and step-mother. I have a great (going on 9 year) relationship with my 13-year-old stepson. If you could write a parenting plan which delegates residential time during the school year, what would it look like?

Right now our family sees the child two weekends a month, but would like to spend more time (Dad/Son YMCA B-ball, helping with homework, family dinners, etc.) The households are about 35 minutes apart, neither parent "bashes" the other, and both parents are remarried with multiple children...

The boy's mother wants to keep the schedule as it has been [for the past 8 years]. We would like to add in one or two mid-week after-school visits, and extend the weekends to start on Thursday after school and last until drop off at school Monday morning.

Liz's response:

Whether a schedule is reasonable is going to depend on the answers to some questions. This is a child going into high school soon. How he does there can affect the entire course of the rest of his life.

What does the child want? How is the increased visitation time going to be in the child's interests? How is the child doing academically, and in his sports, and extracurricular activities, and how will this proposed change facilitate any of that?

For a teenager, "time" with parents as well as with young half-siblings is not as important as his maximizing academic and extracurricular achievements, developing peer relationships, and perhaps getting a part time job. For academic achievement, as classes and his own schedule become more complicated, he is going to need more independence, less interference with his life from family demands, and more flexibility from his parents.

It appears that both parents have prioritized their own wants, including new children and relationships ahead of the child's familial stability. Family transitions, remarriages and divorces, and new half-siblings, all put existing children at risk.

Direct-from-school transitions and Monday morning drop-offs to school are unreasonable for an older child who would be required not only to keep track of his own activities and homework, but also to pack and prepare on Wednesday night or Thursday morning for what he will need from home for an entire weekend through to the following Monday at school. It's too much. The school transition thing is not only unnecessary but detrimental. It is especially disruptive for children in schools that have Friday testing, or projects due on Fridays. The child needs down time and organization time from one consistent base of operation.

For a teenager, you would do far better to try for more cooperation and flexibility, than a set schedule. He's 13 now, but within two years there is going to be a huge developmental change (it varies by child but will be starting if not well underway or nearly completed), and he will be a young man with his own life, not a child.

It is unreasonable to schedule after-school visits that will interfere with homework, extracurricular activities, future part time jobs, and the teenager's social life. An adolescent does not need mid-week visits to bond with family. He needs to be deciding for himself what his after-school activities will be, and using his free time to participate in sports, clubs, social life and community activities. It's one thing if there's a special reason for him to come over for a visit (e.g. out of town relatives visiting, or a sibling's birthday party.) Otherwise, he needs to be doing his homework first. And at this age, he should NOT be doing it on a regular basis with his parents' involvement. The adolescent also needs the option, unscheduled, to stay late at school for sports and clubs (and he should be encouraged in these activities.)

The child should be permitted to decide for himself when he is going to add in extra visits. If he wants to come over occasionally after school, then he should be permitted to do so as he wants to, and then be given a lift home later, early enough that it doesn't interfere with his schoolwork, his sleep (teenage boys need a LOT of sleep because physical growth occurs during sleep time), and getting ready for the next day. Similarly, if he feels like coming over on an extra Sunday or weekend, and has the time, then his mother should allow that. Additionally, his father should be striving to support, attend and be involved in the boy's school and sporting events, and encouraging his achievement, leadership skills, and independence. There should be open and flexible telephone and email communications between the father and son.

Finally, the child certainly doesn't need litigation at this point in his life stressing and distracting him and his parents and wasting money.

Adolescence is the time when teenagers should be permitted to be focused on themselves. Moving from child to adult is not an easy transition. The teenager does not require -- or benefit from -- mid-week scheduled visits, or specific times delineated in a "parenting plan" to be spent with family members in order to have relationships with them. Those relationships should be a given at this point, but even if they are not, good or bad or in-between, they are what they are.

Teenagers should be directing their energies toward personal achievement: getting good grades, developing themselves, learning to prioritize their own time and make their own decisions, enlarging their social spheres in the world, preparing for college, and becoming comfortable with less dependency on parents. This does not mean that teenagers do not need their parents, but they do need their parents to start becoming supportive of them in a very different way from when they were younger.

Do the right thing and put the adolescent, and his next four or five years ahead of what you want. To reiterate: how this child does, in large part on his own, over the next few years will determine his academic success, the interests he develops, his social poise, autonomy and self-direction, and what colleges and future options he will have as a young adult.




Of significance, and unsurprisingly, the above stepmother's inquiry contained no comments at all about what the 13-year-old boy wanted or needed, or how he ostensibly would benefit from increased timeshare with the father's new family. I also noted that, as is common, the stepmother, and not the father, was researching these issues. I also noted that this stepmother has one or more of her own children. No matter how supposedly terrific her "relationship" with her stepchild is, it is extremely unlikely that those feelings come close to how she feels about the children to whom she gave birth.

I strongly suspect that her motives include one or more of the following reasons that stepmothers push for custody of stepchildren, even though, were they to be honest, most stepmothers, especially if they have their own children, don't want his children, and really would rather not have responsibility for his children. The reasons stepmothers (and some girlfriends) do this are:

(1) Maintaining the exclusivity of her husband's familial interests and affections toward her, and by extension, "her" family. This gives rise to the common emotional need to redefine the stepchild as belonging to the stepmother, i.e. "ours", and part of the stepmother's nuclear family. Stepchildren are competition for fathers' limited free time and resources. This is true whether or not the stepmother has her own children.

Unlike in an intact biological family, the father's interests are going to be conflicted in a blended family situation. There is no fully satisfactory solution to this, and it is one reason blended families do not function so well (and have such high divorce rates), especially if the father spends time with his prior children in activities that by the father's choice or of necessity exclude his later-born children or wife. There are many examples of these: court-mandated father-child only activities, dinners out, and therapies; parent-teacher conferences and school events also attended by the ex; pick-ups and drop-offs that can take considerable time away from the intact family, derail spontaneity in outings, and may also include impromptu visiting with the former spouse; continuing communications with the former spouse; activities during timesharing with the older stepchild that are not suitable for including later children or the stepmother; timesharing and school holiday schedules that conflict with the stepmother's children's time off or interfere with holiday plans, etc.

Some men resolve the conflict by directing the bulk of their emotional and financial support toward the children of their current wife, rather than their own children from other relationships, even if her children are not his. Others cause undercurrents of strife in their current marriages by voluntarily or involuntarily continuing to divert a not insubstantial part of their free time and emotional and financial resources to a competing family system. In the latter situation, their current wives consciously or subconsciously attempt to resolve this problem (women tend to manage family systems) by creating one unified family and/or by engaging in a pretense of loving the stepchildren and the timesharing arrangement, especially if they have no choice in the matter.

Some women lack insight into their own feelings, subsuming them under a need or strong desire to please their husbands. Some have no practicable choice but to carry the banner of their husband's ongoing complaints, gripes and excuses, or displaced guilt about how his choices might have harmed his prior children, because if they stop cheerleading, their marriages will falter. Others just silently chafe, as he continues to maintain a "good relationship" with the people who had first claim on him.

(2) Reducing the child support her husband has to pay. This is especially pernicious inasmuch as the subsequent wife should have been aware of her mate's prior obligations when she decided to marry and have children with him. Some women, however, often those who were childless when they met him, did not at the inception fully appreciate the financial impact of the prior obligations, the possibility of increased child support in later years, the insulting effect of their own financial contributions toward limiting his deductions in the child support calculation process, how this would impact their own emotions down the road or their future children (or their subconscious vision of a future intact happy family), or any of the attendant blended family emotional and authority issues. Financial issues are the tangible symbol of the loyalty and unhealthy alliance problems, and are a more easily perceived and articulated irritant.

(3) Obtaining a vague hoped-for better situation on balance for her own children, such as the older half-sibling's affection (if the stepchild is more attached to his mother's other children than to hers), or even free babysitting. Notwithstanding men's fond hopes, it is nearly never that a stepmother feels about her stepchildren as she does about her own children. Importantly, stepchildren do not benefit from being continually in a residential situation in which they are second-best to the better-loved biological children of their stepmothers.

Moreover, the stepmother's own children, who have only one mother, do not benefit from sharing their one mother with a child or children who already have a mother elsewhere. The stepmother's children also do not benefit from the continual presence of a stepchild who lives by other rules and values, or from witnessing their own mother's denigrated household and parental authority vis a vis the step-sibling. Most often, however, and more and more these days with the fatherhood rhetoric and parenting plans, the stepmother has no choice or control over the timesharing situation that directly affects her own family and marital life. Thus, having more control can seem preferable, and more "family" timeshare carries the possibility of more control.

These issues not infrequently are subsumed under the compelling and usually inarticulated or unrecognized emotional needs of the stepmother described under item (1), above. But they also are about control and consistency that the stepmother needs for the benefit of her own children. Even though the presence of a stepchild denigrates the time and attention the stepmother can direct toward her own children, the stepmother may still believe that if the stepchild were integrated into the her family system, the detriment to her own children will be offset by more hoped-for familial unity. Her goal is to reduce the father's split loyalties and the competition from the stepchild(ren) that turns his attention away from her family. If the stepchild is only another member of the group of children in the stepmother's home, then perhaps the father's time and attention can remain consistently directed to all of them collectively (e.g. holidays, family outings). So not infrequently, stepmothers seek compromise strategies even though their real feelings -- albeit self-preservation dictates that they usually will loudly and indignantly deny these feelings -- range from tolerating the less-than-ideal situation (if they truly are fond of the stepchild or stepchildren), to fervently wishing that his former family would just vaporize and disappear.

(4) Satisfying a need, also widespread among childless stepmothers and girlfriends, to prove that she is, in all ways, the better woman and mother. This is a competition thing, often exacerbated intentionally or unintentionally by the husband, about the woman who was there first. Some second wives uncritically adopt, attempt to create, and/or seek to reinforce the negative opinions of their husbands toward the first wife, vested in believing wholly in his skewed point of view and a reconstructed history of his prior relationship (e.g. "I never really loved her"; e.g."She is a negligent mother"; e.g. "Parental alienation", etc.). Not infrequently, their husbands deliberately or unwittingly promote this, and may even have remarried in part to obtain convenient homemaking and childcare from a preferred fungible (in his mind) "mother". Other women develop their own negative feelings because of jealousy, especially when naive assumptions about being "the mother" in an instant family give way over time to the reality. Many women live to regret their credulity, and change their points of view considerably, if later on they themselves get divorced from the same man. This is particularly sad for second wives who did not have the children they might have had, and after years of effort, illusions are shattered when, post-divorce, they are no longer a de facto mother of his children as both of them formerly pretended was the case.

Are there exceptions to these rules? Sure. But far, far less often than not, and almost never if there is a stepmother leading the effort to change an existing custody arrangement.

Note to judges, psychologists, custody evaluators, legislators and the media: Stop facilitating the fantasies. Stop creating and exacerbating the problems. Stop it. Stop it now.





The Child-Centered Divorce Family Court is Not a Family-Friendly Place Parenting Coordination Dealing with forensic psychologists and discovery of test data in court


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