'My Son Wants To Live With His Dad': How To Handle Joint Custody

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Suddenly, your son springs on you that he's made the decision that he'd like to live with his father full-time — the joint custody arrangement you had shared with your ex-husband is no longer meeting his needs (at least in his mind). To your son, this may seem a logical request, but to you, it signals the end of a relationship and the closeness you once shared. You may even be taken aback at the emotions you’re feeling and be unsure of where to turn.

The reality is that we all change as we grow and develop. But, while you may have noticed certain developmental changes taking place in your son, this request from seemingly left-field has the potential to be particularly hurtful to you.

I'd like to share with you several critical strategies for coping with both your son's request and the feelings that may arise in you, and for maintaining, and even strengthening, the bond you share.

Communication Is Key
In order to cope with your son's wish, you must take care of your own needs and desires while remaining calm and meeting those of your son as well. Communication is key to learn what's at the core of his request. And, it's important to be realistic about your son's developmental needs and the relationship you share with his father.

Keep in mind that the mother-son bond is strong. Actor James Dean once commented on his rebellious, troubled nature by saying, "My mother died on me when I was nine years old. What does she expect me to do? Do it alone?"

We’re often confronted with daily reminders of the complexities of joint custody out of Hollywood. Entertainers like Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller, Pete Wentz and Ashlee Simpson, Gabriel Aubry and Halle Barry, and of course one of the most famous couples, Kevin Federline and Britney Spears, have all attempted to establish a "working" parental relationship with one another, while seeking custody of their children. 6 Lessons From Jennifer Lopez And Marc Anthony's Divorce 

While your circumstance may not play out in the headlines, it's no less heartbreaking and emotional. However, the bond between mother and son can't be broken by a simple change of address. This is an opportunity to strengthen, rather than diminish, your relationship.

Recognize Your Son's Needs
His needs become more complex as he ages. Many of them can be difficult, and as women, we can only speculate as to the journey a boy must navigate to grow into a man. During your time together, you've taught him certain things he must know to be kind and compassionate as he matures. And, you've taken care with the small lessons that present themselves daily that only you can teach: opening doors for a lady, listening, taking other's feelings into consideration, etc.

His father has the ability to teach him other skills necessary that we, as mothers, cannot. These are most typically through modeling: confidence, risk-taking, and how to develop respect for his body are just several of the skills his father can impart. Bonding between father and son is as critical to your son's development as the bond the two of you share.

Having said this, it's important to point out that it's just this potential for modeling that keeps many woman from recognizing any positive aspect of a relationship between father and son. As one woman asked, "How can I protect my son from my husband's "modeling"?

Indeed, it’s unnerving to even entertain the thought that a person with whom you have conflict or even animosity towards could be in any way a role model for your son. Study: Women Gain Weight After Marriage, Men After Divorce

In this case, it's advisable to examine the relationship that you have with your ex-husband and begin to separate that from his abilities as a father. There are certain aspects of his personality that attracted you at one time. Perhaps these should be addressed so you can form a more non-emotional view and not allow the conflicts that may still be present to cloud the relationship your son could build and enjoy with his father.

Determine The Reason Behind His Request
A boy's needs are different as they age, and his request to live with his father may, in his mind, meet those needs more readily than what you can provide him as a woman. Children—even 6'2", adult-looking children—live in the moment. They tend to feel, act, and think in their own best interest. This is necessary developmentally to become their own person. Although, it carries its own hazards, such as hurting others, even unconsciously. It's important to consider the reason for your son's request to live with his father, and this takes communication. So, what are the possible avenues to explore?

Perhaps it's a surface type of desire like the almost vacation-like atmosphere of part-time living that he may experience with his father currently. The time frame that most fathers have custody of their kids is Saturday and Sunday, two days of fun in anyone's week! Once the reality of a Monday through Friday schedule, along with school, chores and after-school work is experienced, the novelty of being in a different environment may begin to wear off.

Another important aspect of weekend custody is that everyone is on their "best behavior" — easily accomplished when there is such limited contact. Behavior changes though, when contact is more regular and prolonged with discipline and expectations becoming more of a factor. So, perhaps it's more freedom from "rules" your son is seeking, or perhaps the promise of the use of a car, etc. Whatever the reason, try to listen. 5 Ways Parents Can Re-Bond With Their Kids At Any Age

Then there are the deeper needs he may be seeking. Perhaps he needs to establish a bond with his father as he has with you. This is a good thing. Whatever conflicts and emotions that may remain or may still be in play with your ex-husband, your son has one father, and in all circumstances, a strong, loving relationship with both parents is the best situation for him.

Your Ultimate Goal
Taking your own feelings into consideration is just as important as those of your son and his father. Spend some time to think about the following questions and consider reaching out to friends, support groups, or a therapist to discuss the following:

  • Describe the best qualities of your son
  • What are you most proud of as a mother?
  • What is your biggest concern/frustration/heartbreak with your son?
  • How does your relationship with your son's father affect your relationship with your son?
  • How is rearing a son different than rearing a daughter?
  • How have you learned to stay connected with your son?
  • What advice would you give a mother with a younger son?
  • Is it useful to talk to other mothers about your son?

Your ultimate goal is much like that of every loving mother: a healthy, strong son who has a loving relationship with both you and his father. While it's an on ongoing challenge, it's one worthy of both parents.

Here is some further reading I suggest for this particular subject:
Giving the Love that Heals, Harville Hendrix, PhD
The Roller Coaster Years, Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese
How to Say It to Boys, Richard Heyman, Ed.D
Real Boys, William Pollack, PhD
Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, Ann F. Caron, Ed.D.
Raising a Son, Don Elium and Jeanne Elium
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D.

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This article was originally published at Mary Kay Cocharo . Reprinted with permission from the author.