When a Son or Daughter Wants to Live with Dad

How to Respond With Empathy

Girl hugging father
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Q: My ex and I split up about four years ago. At the time, our kids were 2, 4, and 9. Now that our oldest is a teenager, he frequently complains that he wants to go live with his dad. He says that he’s tired of looking after his brothers and wants to know what it would be like to see his dad every day instead of on the weekends. I also think that he secretly wants a fresh start at a new school.

I’m sympathetic, but I don’t think my ex is prepared to be a full-time parent. He travels a lot, and he’s not as firm as I am about things like homework, bedtimes, and general routines. I know he loves the boys, and I’m all for them spending time together. But I really do believe the kids are better off living with me. Also, my other concern is that if I let our oldest go live with his dad, the other two will follow suit. Am I just being selfish?

A: It sounds like you want consistency for your kids, and that’s not selfish at all! However, it’s important to respond to your son’s request with empathy and communicate clearly and lovingly about the issue:

  1. Consider where your son is coming from. Based on what you’ve said, it sounds like he genuinely misses his father’s daily presence and wants to know what his life would have been like if he had lived with his dad after the breakup (or even if the divorce had never happened). This sense of curiosity is natural. It sounds as though he may also be dealing with issues at school that could be making his fantasies about living with his father even more appealing. 

    Remember, too, that it probably wasn’t easy for your son to articulate his feelings to you out loud. Even if he blurted out the request in anger, it’s probably been on his mind for a while. So before you respond defensively (which would be perfectly natural), take the time to consider where your son is coming from. For example, has he been missing his dad more than you realized? Or is there something going on at school that you need to address more directly? (For instance, is he being bullied?) Better understanding the root of his request will help you address any deeper issues at the same time.
  1. Become familiar with the laws in your state. At 13, your child may legally have a say in custody decisions that affect him. So take the time to read up on the child custody laws in your state so that you’ll be prepared if your ex requests a change of custody on your son’s behalf.
  2. Talk with your ex. You might be tempted to keep your son's desire to live with his dad a secret, but it's important to talk about the issue with your ex directly so that you can work together to meet his needs. Express your concerns about splitting the boys up and discuss ways to address the root of your son’s request -- wanting more time with dad -- without modifying the child custody order. For example, could your ex spend more time with your son? Would each of the boys benefit from a little one-on-one time with dad? Talk about practical ways to modify the existing child custody and visitation arrangement to address your son's feelings while still maintaining the consistency he needs. 
  1. Ask yourself what you can do to help your son. Whether he’s been missing his dad, is dealing with complicated issues at school -- or both -- your son needs your support and love right now. As hard as it is to put aside your fear and anger, remember that this isn't about you. It's about your son needing to express himself fully and knowing that he's loved unconditionally even when his opinions differ from yours.
  2. Practice active listening. Let your son know that you really hear him. Say, "What I hear you saying is..." And thank him for being so open with you! 

Finally, remember that these conversations present growth opportunities for both of you. Instead of resisting that opportunity, welcome it! Force yourself not to say out loud every thought that passes through your head, and truly listen to what your son is saying. Allow these conversations to draw you closer as you genuinely seek to understand his point of view. That's the real goal, and it might be even more important than holding on to your position as the custodial parent!

More: How to Respond When Your Child Wants to Live With the Other Parent