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Adolescents and child custody CHANGING CUSTODY

A pre-adolescent girl writes:

My name is [ ]. I am 12 years old. I've lived with my mom for 12 years now. For the longest time I wasn't really close with my dad, but now I feel like I want to live with my dad and feel it will be a better place because where I live now I am very depressed and lonely but when I go by my dads house every other weekend I feel very loved and happy. When I am at my dads house they give me lots of comfort and support. My dad is going to court a week from Tuesday to ask the court if I can move in with him...

Liz's response:

You have a good time at your father's house, get along with everyone there, and have a close relationship with him and them. Good!   Now: don't mess with what isn't broke! (And this is advice for your father, too.)

You are a novelty at your father's house, and being there is like a vacation. You are not there long enough for life to settle into the hum-drum and routine, or for the special energy and attention directed your way as a beloved guest to lag. You say you are depressed and lonely (this is a common teenage complaint, by the way), but that is not caused by your not living in your father's house, and it will not be cured by it. Instead of figuring out and addressing the real issues, you (and your father) are making a mistake that many teenagers from divorced homes make: by the happenstance of your parents living in different households, you are focusing on the "grass is greener" illusion. However, whatever is making you feel down, it is not happening because you do not live in another household that by pure chance is available only because your parents do not live together. If your parents lived together, you would feel the same way. If there were no other household to move to, you would feel the same way. And, were you living with your father, you soon would find out that on a day-in and day-out basis, once things settled into the normal and familiar, that nothing would have changed as far as how you feel. In fact, things likely would be worse.

During the adolescent years, it is the job of children to grow in maturity and become more independent and less interested in the confines of their parents' home. Frequently, this includes some measure of that "teenage rebellion" we hear about and a "pushing" of boundaries. This is common, expected, and even healthy. It also is normal for that testing of wings to be coupled with some degree of conflicting desire to remain in the childhood security of parental protection, in other words, to stay a child. This inherent conflict -- wanting to grow up and "get away" and yet sometimes wanting the security of being a child -- is one of the things that makes the adolescent years difficult. (Other stressors are hormonal changes and increasing academic and social expectations.)

In an intact family, the dissatisfaction with being "under the thumb" or "under the wing" of one's parents and pushing for independence is expressed against both parents together as if they were, not separate persons, but a "parental unit." In divorce situations, however, because the parents no longer live together or function in unison, there frequently is the unfortunate potential for the outward-bound maturing teenager to focus not (as would be healthy) on achieving more and more independence and interest in the outside world at large, but to stagnate and fixate on moving back and forth between the two parents instead. The teenager's focus becomes not on achieving comfort and competence in the world of adulthood, but on moving between the parents' households, stuck in emotional childhood, stuck in an unhealthy horizontal holding pattern that goes nowhere and isn't the proper direction.

Because the noncustodial parent's home is not the psychological ("real") home, it does seem very compelling, and the reasons it does often are subconscious. It simultaneously offers the illusion of "moving away from home," while also retaining the comfort of "not really moving." It really is just remaining at home in the parental haven, and under the protective parental wing of the other parent. The illusion seems to reconcile the adolescent conflict of "want to grow up - don't want to grow up" and is dangerously deceptive in this way because this is so attractive. It is one of the phenomena that contribute to those statistics of divorced children not doing as well in high school and early adulthood as children from intact homes. Moving back and forth in a holding pattern, instead of having an outward focus of wider and wider concentric circles of social growth away from the home of origin has a retarding effect on childhood security, and disrupts the teenager's progress toward social maturity and emotional competence.

Many, many teenagers decide they want to make "the change." BUT, when all is said and done, that noncustodial parent is still a parent. The reality is that once there, nearly every teenager who makes this kind of move ultimately realizes that not only did the move fail to accomplish any real positive changes, but also that it created its own additional set of negatives and complications. Usually, the teenager finds that it's not just not better, but actually worse (frying pan, fire). Now the teenager is not living with the closer psychological parent. There is less emotional comfort, security and familiarity than home offered. The move itself and the necessary adjustments it entailed of all the family members interfered with school achievement, social life, routines, everything else on which the teenager should have been focused, including a healthy boundary-pushing and emotional growth away from the parental havens (BOTH of them.)

For all these reasons, nearly ALL teenagers who are permitted voluntarily to make this kind of move, and who are permitted to do so, move BACK to their original home within about a year!

Unfortunately, often it's not just a "no harm done" kind of thing that was tried, tested and just didn't work. Wasted energies and wasted time cannot be recouped. To the extent the teenager made the move because of unarticulated issues and vague personal dissatisfactions, or problems in the home of origin, the move to the noncustodial parent's home doesn't solve those problems. They remain. Worse, the move, which seemed to offer "happiness" and which was fixated on, like a fantasy, as the hoped-for panacea (often encouraged by a misguided noncustodial parent who has his own subconscious motives and wishes), only delays the figuring out and addressing of the real issues.

Sadly, in the long run moving to the other parent's house doesn't even result in the teenager's becoming closer with that other parent and members of that parent's household. It does not usually end up in more satisfaction for anyone involved, because the teenager isn't moving into the household AS a happy person, but bringing into that household the baggage of all those underlying, festering and still-unaddressed issues that instigated the desire to move. The stress of the move and the change it entails for everyone usually culminates in the exacerbation of whatever it was that originally was giving the teenager a feeling of dissatisfaction. In addition to the huge adjustments that the entire family has to make, there is the final emotional let-down of the teenager's disillusionment with the idealized noncustodial parent and household. (Persons whom we have artificially elevated in status only fall down that much further and harder when they topple from those pedestals.) And if the move also entailed a change of community, then it likely also had all the additional negative effects on schoolwork and relationships that moves will have, but without the advantage of being permanent following an adjustment period (because most teenagers also move back.)

In short, unless there is something clearly harmful in the custodial home or obviously and significantly advantageous about living in the other parent's home or community, it's a bad idea. (It's a bad idea in the first place for children to be offered home alternatives, the "two home" concept, but that's the subjectof a different essay.) It would be a better idea to talk with someone who can help you figure out what it is that's actually causing you to feel depressed (like hormone changes, lack of sleep, social issues, academic problems, not getting enough exercise, not having enough hobbies and interests, or feeling torn between your parents' conflicts) so you can take action that will actually go toward doing something that will further your happiness and well being.


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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