When You're Divorced And Your Child Doesn’t Want To Live With You

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As someone who went through my own divorce, it was excruciating enough, even though all of my children seemed to adjust really well. They were fine going back and forth, and not once in the past few years has any of my kids expressed a need or want to live with just me or just their father.

The joint custody arrangement has worked out well for us all.

It never occurred to me how hard it would be if one of them wanted to live with their dad and not spend time in my home any more. I still have no clue since I haven’t lived it, but I can only imagine seeing how hard it is to not be with them when it’s their dad’s night, or he takes them away on vacation.

But one of my friends hasn’t been so lucky with her joint custody situation; she has a teenager who let her know he wants to live with his father now. While they still see each other, it’s not the same and has been so very hard on her.

She doesn’t want to get the court involved, as she feels like her son is a young man and should be able to make this decision on his own. “He’s not eight anymore and I can’t physically force him to come with me,” she told me the other night when he let her know he would be staying with his father on her night once again.

Every situation is different. My friend’s son seems to want to live with his dad because he’s not made to do chores and has a very long leash without curfew or phone restrictions; she’s always been the disciplinarian.

I think her son is a typical teenager in that he cares about his social life very much and wants to be where he can do what he wants. There’s no abuse or danger for the child. She feels her ex is a pretty good father who loves her son, but he’s much more lax than she is when it comes to making sure he gets his school work done on time and he lets his girlfriend spend the night.

However, when they agreed to divorce, their custody agreement states he would be with her for half the time — and her ex husband isn’t supporting this agreement in any way, simply saying, “He wants to stay with me for a while.”

In order to file an official complaint, it will cost money, and she was told by DHS that it may be weeks or months before the complaint officially gets filed. Even then, they couldn’t promise they could really do anything about it.

Nationally-recognized mental health expert Ned Presnall, LCSW, told Scary Mommy that as hard as this may be for the non-preferred parent, it might be a time to let them go a bit. “There’s no one right way to negotiate custody issues with teenagers. If we assume that the basic structure and support provided to the teen in each household is equitable, then there should be quite a bit of deference given to the teen in choosing where they spend their time.”

Basically, that is what my friend has decided to do right now, even though it is tearing her up inside and she feels completely dismissed.

If this is happening to you, or someone you know, there are steps you can take to ease your pain. Again, this is very different from having an ex keep your child away from you on purpose, or you wanting to keep them from their other parent because there are horrible things going on in that household and you feel like they are in danger.

Those are examples when you absolutely should get lawyers and the court involved.

Presnall reminds us the teens years are a time when they really aren’t focused on spending time with their parents in the first place.

Naturally we want to pursue them and ask to spend time with them, as my friend has. While her son did have dinner with her, he didn’t want to stay at her house. They talk on the phone and text and she continues to ask him to do stuff with her all the time.

There are times he says “yes” but many times he says “no.”

Presnall says in order to get the best results from your teen, “You should engage in a supportive, affirmative relationship with the teen no matter what.” Be their cheerleader, send them positive notes, have as much involvement in their life as you can, such as going to games and taking them to appointments.

“But when a teen doesn’t live in your household, you don’t need to micromanage them,” he says. “Instead, you can give them the unconditional positive regard that they crave as they grow to be the primary source of authority in their own lives.”

I have another friend who went through this with her son years ago, although she was on the opposite end. Her son only wanted to stay with her and didn’t want a thing to do with his father. Their relationship was nonexistent for about a year, and she told me, “The worst thing my ex did was to stop pursuing him. He didn’t reach out, he didn’t come over, he didn’t call him for a year.”

Looking back, she realizes her son was hurt and rejected and needed his dad in many ways, but as a teenager, he didn’t know how to express it.

Erik Wheeler is a mediator who does a lot of post-divorce and divorce mediations, and teaches a class on parenting that is required in Vermont for parents going through divorce. He told Scary Mommy, “From a legal standpoint, it’s unlikely the court will enforce a schedule when it pertains to a teenager, since they are relatively independent anyway. The court knows that if they force the teen to visit the other parent, they likely will leave on their own.”

He suggests the best way to deal with the situation with your child is to talk, listen, and try to understand what their objections are to spending time at your house. Pressuring the child isn’t the answer. “Don’t use guilt, as it will not work and won’t benefit either of you,” he says.

Wheeler has seen the most success with parents who give the child some time and space, and “invite her or him to do different activities. Eventually you may find that you’ll either understand better the reasons why they aren’t staying with you, or the child may have more interest in staying with you. At this point they just need reassurance that you will always be there to help and support them.”

These are tools to hopefully make the situation a bit more bearable, but there’s no denying this is a heart-wrenching situation. I’d do anything to make this better for my friend, but she is handling it well and is determined to stay in her child’s life no matter what. It’s all you can do as a parent of a teen who wants to live with another parent.