What To Do When Your Child Asks To Live With Dad, After Years Of Living With You

You can maintain your bond while meeting your child's needs, but you must consider a few things first.

Father and son, backlit by sunset, sit on a wall with a bike and skateboard Fabio Principe / shutterstock 

Suddenly, your child springs on you that they've made the decision that they'd like to live with their father full-time — the joint custody arrangement you had shared with your ex-husband is no longer meeting their needs.

To your kid, 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 by 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 child, 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 child's request and the feelings that may arise in you, and for maintaining, and even strengthening, the bond you share.

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To meet your child's wishes, take care of your needs, too

In order to fulfill your child's wish, you must take care of your own needs and desires while remaining calm. Communication is key to learning what's at the core of the request. And it's important to be realistic about your daughter or son's developmental needs and the relationship you share with their other parent.

Keep in mind that the mother-child bond is strong. Actor James Dean once commented on his rebellious, troubled nature by saying, "My mother died on me when I was 9 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 through the real-life drama of Hollywood. Many celebrities over the years have attempted to establish a "working" parental relationship with one another while seeking custody of their children.

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


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Recognize that a kid's needs evolve

Their needs become more complex as they age. Many of them can be difficult, and as women, we can only speculate as to the journey a boy must navigate to grow into an adult. A father who is raising a daughter as the primary single parent may come to realize the same about a girl's journey. 

With a son, you may have spent time teaching him certain things he must know to be kind and compassionate as he matures. And, you've taken care of the small lessons that present themselves daily that only you can teach: opening doors for others, listening, taking others' feelings into consideration, etc.

His father has the ability to teach them other skills necessary that we, as mothers, might not be as familiar with. These are most typically through modeling: confidence, risk-taking, and how to develop respect for his body (and others') are just several of the skills a father can impart. Bonding between father and child is as critical to your kid's development as the bond the two of you share.


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What if you don't trust Dad?

Having said this, it's important to point out that it's just this potential for modeling that keeps many women from recognizing any positive aspect of a relationship between father and kid. After all, what if Dad models poor behavior for a child, regardless of gender?

Indeed, it’s unnerving to even entertain the thought that a person with whom you have conflict or even animosity could be in any way a role model for your child. 

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 child could build and enjoy with their father.


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Understand why they want to live with both parents

A child's needs are different as they age. If the kid is a boy, 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 many 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.

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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 child is seeking, or perhaps the promise of the use of a car, etc. Whatever the reason, try to listen.

Then there are the deeper needs they may be seeking. Perhaps they need to establish a bond with their father. As long as their father is not abusive or neglectful, this is a good thing! 


Whatever conflicts and emotions may remain or may still be in play with your ex-husband, your child has one father, and in all circumstances, a strong, loving relationship with both parents is the best situation for them.

Identify your co-parenting goals

Taking your own feelings into consideration is just as important as those of your child and their 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:

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

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

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Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California.