Avoiding the “Most Popular Parent” contest in custody cases

Most jurisdictions provide some mechanism for children to express their wishes in a custody case.
Most jurisdictions provide some mechanism for children to express their wishes in a custody case. MCT

Madonna recently learned in a very public manner that she has essentially lost the ability to tell her 15-year old what to do. It wasn’t just about what clothes he could wear, or how long he could watch television. It was much bigger. Madonna’s son Rocco chose to live with his father.

While most of us struggle with setting boundaries and imposing discipline on a daily basis, the stakes are higher when it means the difference between having custody of your child, or not. Parenting should not be a popularity contest, but it can become one. It can come down to one thing – choice. Most jurisdictions provide some mechanism for children to express their wishes in a custody case. Some jurisdictions have a specific age, while others leave it more open as far as the particular child’s ability to articulate their wishes.

Some considerations when assessing the child’s wishes in custody cases:

1. The child’s wishes are not controlling. In most jurisdictions, the child’s wishes are considered, but do not control the custody decision. However, as the child gets older, it is harder to impose a custody order against their will even if the parent they are opposed to being with demonstrates the stronger parenting skills. There does come a time where it is impossible to physically force the child, and doing so could prove harmful to both the parent and the child. It is a delicate balance between maintaining good boundaries for the child’s well-being and development, versus alienating the child. Children reach an age where their inclination to have a relationship, or not, actually matters.

2. Custody Orders are typically modifiable. This takes into account the fluid nature of custodial arrangements. While the Court may find that the child would be better served with one parent as the primary custodian now, that may change over time. As such, in situations like Madonna’s where the parent and child relationship is obviously very strained, the Court can order actions to be taken to rehabilitate the relationship. For example, there are therapists who specialize in rehabilitating parent and child relationships. As the relationship improves, the Court retains the ability to review the custodial arrangement upon request by either party to make adjustments.

3. Positive co-parenting may be the key. When children know that the parents do not communicate well it incentives them to choose one over the other. Despite separation, parents can still present a united front even if they are not totally in agreement on all issues. There are still ways to support each other and the child’s relationship with the other parent. Otherwise, the child may prefer one parent now, but quickly and frequently change “sides”. There are resources such as parent education, divorce coaches, parenting coordinators, and other avenues which can help navigate shared parenting concerns before they devolve into a full blown popularity contest.

Most of us don’t have Madonna’s specific challenges - bowing in and out of a world tour while trying to reason with your 15-year old cannot be easy. But dealing with everyday life, while negotiating with a child, is something we can all relate to and understand. The lesson here is that no matter who you are, as a parent the pendulum starts to swing towards your child’s independence as they get older, and it is a fine line as far as balancing parental guidance in a way that is effective with the child without alienating them.