Parenting Time: When Teenagers Want to Change

by Annette Burns on July 8, 2011

This is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for awhile, and I finally got to the relevant pages about it in Dr. Emery’s The Truth About Children and Divorce  (Robert E. Emery, PH.D., 2006)     Simply put, sometimes teenagers have distinct feelings about their parenting time schedule and ask for changes.    To really confuse the parents, children who have cooperated with a particular parenting plan for years may seem fine with it until they hit their early teens, and then suddenly express a desire to change it.

The request for change happens sometimes with equal time-sharing plans.   A child may have gone along with a 2-2-5-5 or alternating weeks schedule,  but as a teen now says he wants to spend more time at one house than the other.     This is tricky for most children —- most don’t want to insult either parent or make mom or dad feel bad.  A preference to spend more time in one household is generally not an announcement that the child likes one parent more than the other, but an expression of independence and focus on his own busy life.   Teenagers have schedules, likes and dislikes, and are the most concerned with having a home life that facilities their lifestyles and not necessarily mom’s or dad’s.    Note:  This is not something exclusive to children of divorced homes!

Dr. Emery notes that a child’s desire may be to spend more time at the same-sex parent’s home.      I’ve seen situations where this happens, because the same-sex parent may be more supportive (either overtly or subconsciously) of the teenager’s preferred activities; or may be able to guide them through adolescence just a little more smoothly than the other parent.   One example of this is a teenage girl expressing a desire to be at Mom’s more, because she can get help with those all-important hair  and makeup issues (I’m making it sound frivolous, but to a high school freshman girl, those things are crucial), or can talk to Mom more easily about boyfriend problems.      Even so, I’ve seen enough examples of girls who can talk more readily with dad, and boys with mom, to know that the same-sex parent preference is only an occasional thing.

This issue for teenagers is far more difficult where the separated/ divorced parents have drastically different parenting styles.    Unfortunately, the majority of cases I see involve highly conflicted parents who lack either the desire or the ability to effectively communicate; or if they communicate, it’s primarily about their differences.

Dr. Emery also notes (consistent with what most family lawyers hear on this issue) that teens may express their desires in well-reasoned and mature ways, politely asking a parent for help changing the parenting time; or they may have angry outbursts and fights, refuse to go to one parent’s home, start acting out in school, or otherwise make the parents’ lives miserable until someone pays attention.   As a practical matter, the courts generally recognize that after a certain age, it’s virtually impossible to force a teenager to stay at a residence he doesn’t want to be at, as long as he’s willing to stay at the other parent’s and isn’t truant or delinquent.

[NOTE:   One of the most common questions asked of family attorneys is “At what age does he get to decide where he lives?”    Many people mistakenly believe that there is a certain age after which, by law, the child gets to state where he lives, and that’s simply not true under Arizona law.    The child’s preferences (once he’s old enough to state them) are only ONE factor, among eleven, that an Arizona court must consider in awarding custody and setting parenting time, and the child’s wishes are not given any more weight than the other ten factors.  So while the court is to consider the child’s wishes, they are not determinative, and the child doesn’t make the choice.]

The saddest of these cases is where the child is asking that some respect be given to his wishes but the parents can’t or won’t communicate about the issue.     Those cases generally end up in litigation (court).      If the parents can talk, reach agreement, and then check back with the child with a united front, telling him jointly that they’ve decided either (a) the schedule will stay the same, but they respect his feelings and will continue to discuss the issue with him as he gets older; or (b) the schedule will be modified per his wishes, on a trial basis to see how things work out, then it probably doesn’t matter much which option the parents have agreed on —- the point is that they’ve agreed and they’ve both listened to their teenager.

I know that the “joint and united front” option is probably what’s going on in separated and divorced homes all over America, and thank goodness for that.    The court system, family attorneys and Parenting Coordinators don’t, however, get to see those families all that much, because the cooperating families generally stay out of the court system.  The families remaining in the system stay there for different reasons:  Maybe one or both parents can’t or won’t communicate and have made a decision that they’d rather fight or litigate than cooperate with the other parent;  or maybe one or both parents are unable to communicate based on mental health, domestic violence or other specific issues.

But I’ve gotten off the subject.     The main point of Dr. Emery’s book and especially the parts about teenagers and older children is to recognize that children are growing up, and parenting plans sometimes need to be changed.     Children do need to be heard, and sometimes asking for a change to the parenting time schedule is not punishment towards one parent but only the teenager thinking about his own needs and independence.

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