From the start, the custody arrangement has been unfair, with my husband only seeing the kids two nights a week (including one on weekends), plus a separate dinner. He was never comfortable with this deal and wants the kids to live more with us, but his ex has always flatly refused. Although she has never crossed the line by speaking ill of my husband or me to the children, she has made it clear since the separation that she does not consider my husband an equal co-parent and that he exists to act. as a free babysitter. .
We are beginning to see reluctance from her children to come here at night during the week or when they find it inconvenient. They complain that they have to get up too early here on school days, so they would rather not come. (We live nine miles from their school, which is in the town where their mother lives.) Our response to this has always been that while we understand that they don’t like getting up early, it’s a small price to pay to be in someone else’s life. It’s very clear that their mother encourages them to think that way and usually suggests that they stay with us less.
How to handle this situation with the children? I want us to make sure there isn’t an underlying issue that we aren’t aware of, but how do we tell the kids about it without being inappropriate or putting them in the middle? My husband and I are trying to figure out how to get the kids to see our home as their home and to recognize that a relationship with their father is important and that we need to be involved in their lives. However, we don’t know how far we can reasonably push. To be clear, the kids obviously love their dad and always seem happy when they’re with us.
How much do children get for deciding on a custody arrangement? To what extent can we tell them about the hurtful complaints they make that cause their mother to violate the custody agreement? Thanks so much for any advice you can provide!
A: Thanks for writing; custody arrangements and going back and forth between children can be difficult. For starters, I want to sympathize with children. While there’s no need to assign blame here, we certainly know it’s not the kids’ fault that there was a divorce. And yet, it’s more often children who need to keep clothes and personal items in two different homes and swap homework, technology, and important items. Every family member has complicated schedules, but it’s the kids who balance that with school, friendships, sports, activities, and all the other changes that development brings to tweens and teens. They are acutely aware of their friends who have a set of parents, a house, and a schedule.
I’m not suggesting that the marriage should have remained intact, but I am suggesting that, rather than focusing on the injustice of adult situations and desires, we first need to understand where the children come from.
Developmentally, 11 and 15 are very different stages, but they share a deep desire to be with, to belong to, to be important and to be understood by their peers. That doesn’t mean parents don’t matter; it just means that children are attracted to their peers. This shift in energy can feel quite personal to any parent, and it can be even worse when children feel resentful about changing homes. Kids just want things to be easy, and their hormones will cause even more prying eyes, comments, or bad attitudes.
As for how to move forward, I would be very careful when it came to telling them about “their mother pushing to violate the custody agreement”. If possible, do not talk about their mother. This preteen and teen are aware of the disagreements between their parents, and they will not be sensitive to any criticism coming from you or their father. When there is even a whiff of divided loyalties, children will be forced to choose. We don’t want that, so avoid talking about the mother at all costs.
Focus on listening to them complain without having much to say about it. Listen to complaints about inconvenience and the house being too far away, and incorporate them. Just because you don’t feel worthy doesn’t mean it’s not a real problem for them. Maybe their mom pushes them, of course, but listening to kids won’t make feelings worse. When tweens and teens feel heard and respected, they are more likely to work with you rather than against you. By listening and reflecting what they tell you (without any judgment), you may find that they just wanted to get rid of it and you don’t need to do much.
But if they are really miserable and/or not giving up, I highly recommend using Ross Greene’s collaborative and proactive solutions. This approach works because you need to focus on one thing at a time (waking up earlier, for example); you focus on the problem, not on what is wrong with the children or the mother; and you must co-create solutions that work for both parents and children. While not as satisfying as “Because I said so,” this model tends to work because people like to feel respected, heard, and supported. You could make these young people feel guilty or you could work with them in a way that shows that everyone’s feelings matter. That way, you won’t “give in” to wasting time with them either, unless it’s right for you, and you might even find that another schedule might work during those intense and awesome years.
It’s a continuous work, and not everything will be perfect right away (or ever). But the goal is to let children know that you listen to them, respect them and, above all, love them.
Keep an open mind. Good luck.
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