Melinda Johnson was doing pretty well four years out of her divorce. Then she heard the words that rattled her world.
“Mom, I want to live with Dad.”
“My heart was just shattered,” says Johnson, who had been married for 19 years.
Her son was 17 at the time, an age when kids can get into all sorts of trouble. Johnson feared the worst. “I opposed my son moving there. Dad's house didn't have any rules, but did have lots of dollars available.”
It’s not what she or most divorced parents expect.
“When a child chooses one parent over the other some parents may experience feelings of rejection, disloyalty, and abandonment … conjuring up old wounds and reminders of a failed marriage,” says Stephanie Burchell, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas.
Regardless of what she was feeling, Johnson’s opposition to her son’s choice only made things worse. “It was just an ugly time,” she says. “My fear for my other children's safety escalated. He began doing mean things.”
Eventually, she admits, “I was almost glad that he went.”
What makes a child switch homes?
Sometimes a child desires to have a loving and supportive connection with the other parent, Burchell says. But it just as often can be an effort to fill a void that the custodial parent is not filling for him or her.
“This usually becomes an issue when the child reaches adolescence and is trying to reduce the amount of conflict in their current home and/or hopes there will be fewer rules and more freedom at the other parent’s home,” says Michelle New, a clinical child psychologist a Gaithersburg, Maryland. “They may simply fall prey to the common wish for the ‘other side’ where the grass is always greener.”
In most states, a child does not have the right to change custody. “It is always up to the judge,” says Lee S. Rosen, president of Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina. “Once custody has been awarded, the rule is that there must be a significant change in circumstances. In most states, a child simply wanting to be with the other parent would not be considered a change in circumstances.”
The true test, he says, is what is in the best interests of the child. But, he admits, there aren’t a lot of judicial guidelines for judges.
“In most states, if the child is old enough and mature enough to express an opinion in the custody, the court will give their opinion weight. Old enough and mature enough is generally considered to be around 10 or 12 years of age. As the child gets older, the weight given to the opinion becomes much more significant,” he says.
This can wreak havoc in everyone’s life. “Kids may decide they want to leave, exhausted parents may agree. Then a week later, the other parent is on the phone asking to take them back," New says.
Adds Burchell, “When this happens, it’s important not to take this personally or see this as selfish behavior on the part of the child.”
It’s important to remember that you are a parent whether you are divorced or not, Burchell says. “Spouses divorce each other, never their children. Unlike the former spouse, children will remain loyal to parents who are loving, understanding and supportive of their child’s choices.”
When Johnson’s son turned 21, things changed. His father stopped funding him and her son “was clueless about how to get a job, how to keep a job, or how to get back into school.”
So she took him back, and he began to get his act together. “Now, he is back in school and working a part-time job to support himself. In exchange for no rent, he is doing the housework and a lot of the yard work,” she says. “It is not always easy but as long as I see progress, I am more than willing to have him here.”
If your child wants to live with your former spouse, here are some tips:
1. Don't badmouth the other parent.
“Avoid painting a picture of your child’s other parent as a less-desirable person. Your child will always feel a strong sense of love and loyalty to you both. Don’t place your child in a position where they feel pressure to choose one parent or the other," Burchell says.
2. Cover your legal bases.
“Discuss this with your lawyer. If your child goes to live with a non-custodial parent, be sure you are covered legally and that the other parent has the right to consent to everything from school trips to medical procedures," New says.
3. Recognize the other parent's importance.
“Give your child permission to have a loving, satisfying relationship with the other parent. Although a divorce may be final, the job to serve as a positive and flexible co-parent remains over the course of the child’s life,” Burchell says.
4. Remain active in the child's life.
"Be sure to stick to your visitation rights and visit and call your child as often as you can," New says.
Read more from Divorce360:
But I Don’t Want To Forgive Him!
Why Being Nice Doesn’t Matter
How Can I Raise Kids With Someone I Hate?