Son Wants to Change Custody to Live with Unstable Dad

Reader’s Question

I understand that teenagers in divorced families want an opportunity to live with the other parent as they get older, I really do. But what do I do when my ex is an unmedicated manic depressive? This kid and I have been taken through the ringer over the years. Most recently was when his dad moved back out of state (only lived near him two years of his life), declaring if my son chose a private high school he was wait listed for — he wouldn’t support the schooling and would leave the state. And he did. In fact, 6 months ago he threw the child’s belongings out the balcony and the rest of the stuff at him physically. I picked up my son in hysterics sitting on a curb.

We (the 14-year-old and my 4-year-old son — I’m a single parent) had a great summer, he started a very challenging school, played football (difficult/proud of himself) and all of the sudden dropped the ball on his school work for a couple of weeks, and we’ve been in panic, re-cooperate mode. Now, two weeks into the “hunker down mode” he arrived back from visiting his dad and is screaming at me to let him move to DC, life is passing him by, he hates Chicago, our home is depressing, his dad and stepmom are waiting for him — give him a chance to live there, a house with two parents and a dog.

I am physically sick. This man has years of antics — including not speaking to this child for 6 months when I briefly remarried. It was horrible. Now, he wants to move out of state? How can I save him across the country when the inevitable happens? How can he leave this 4-year-old? Is my main job to protect him from his father? What do I do when he purposely fails in school, or makes our home life hell? You can see the gleam in his eyes — he’s going to “make this happen.” I told his father my non-negotiable requirement is that the teen stay in Chicago and the father should move back into the house he keeps here (self-employed; free flying privileges). I’m open to any living arrangements they want to make — here, not out of state.

Psychologist’s Reply

You may be fighting a losing battle here. In most US states, children at his age can make a decision to change custody — as long as the potential parent of custody is cooperative. In these situations, the current custodial parent (you) doesn’t need to be cooperative for this change of custody to take place. The father will probably be required to petition the court for a change of custody, however, and from your description, the father may be counting on the son’s bad behavior to make you change custody on a voluntary basis — without a major court hearing. Some general thoughts and guidelines:

  • Your son is moving toward his father — not away from you. In these situations, the child is often offered lots of promises and plans, prompting the child to move toward the deal offered rather than the parent. Besides, he knows you will always take him back if it doesn’t work out — you’re a Mom.
  • Your son will likely continue his self-destructive behavior until something happens…but there’s another issue. Your son will have been told that you are blocking this wonderful deal out of state. One option is to place the burden of the custody change on the father — that as soon as his father goes through the proper court procedures he can change custody. By placing the burden of responsibility on the father, your son’s behavior may decrease. It truth, you probably can’t stop the custody change, although I’d consult an attorney about your rights.
  • Remember that as a parent, you experienced all your husband’s antics, manipulations, emotional abuse, selfishness, etc. You experienced and remembered them as an adult. Your son only has memories of being upset. He doesn’t have the intense Emotional Memory that you have regarding the past years. In fact, your manipulative ex has probably explained those upsetting episodes by blaming you. For this reason, your son doesn’t know what he’s getting into out of state — only what he’s been promised.
  • Also remember that your ex-husband hasn’t changed. He will likely have a “honeymoon” period with your son, after which time his true personality will gradually emerge. It’s very common for children in this situation to return home after one school year, after living the the same father who terrorized their mother…only now they are the victim. No worry about your ex becoming the perfect father. He’s likely proposing this change for selfish reasons and once the change takes place, his personality will return.
  • You can propose a voluntary change of custody as a test or experiment. In this option, you propose an informal change of physical/location custody — no changes in child support or legal custody — for a period of six months. During that time, the child has the option of staying or returning. This option is often helpful when there has been little contact with the noncustodial parent. It’s a chance to see if they can live together on a day-to-day basis.
  • While there’s emotional risk in changing custody, based on your description of your ex’s behavior, there is also risk in allowing your son to engage in self-destructive behavior.
  • In any change of custody, make sure you maintain contact with your son. Legally, changing custody goes both ways and even if your son changes custody, he may change back with just as much energy and effort. I suspect his desire to live with Dad is more fantasy than reality as in truth, he will be leaving his brother, mom, friends, school, sports, other relatives, etc. Once he adjusts at Dad’s place, he may actually find himself very maladjusted and uncomfortable.
  • I’d consult an attorney for the legal procedures and your rights. Each state is different.

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As you mentioned, many children of divorce have noncustodial parents who have been minimally involved in their lives. When an opportunity to live with them is available, almost all jump at the chance, even if it means jumping into the fire. They see the opportunity as their only chance to answer those unanswered questions that have troubled them for years. What would it be like living with Dad? Can Dad and I finally have a Father-Son relationship? Will the rules be better at Dad’s? Will he really buy me that automobile he’s promising me?

You may also consider seeing a counselor/therapist during his difficult time. The stress associated with these situations is often overwhelming.

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