Family question re siblings
August 14, 2017 12:48 PM   Subscribe

Mrs. L’s two grand nieces (A. aged 11) and (S. aged 14) are back home with their mother from staying with their father for the summer break. This has been happening for the last several years with no problems. However, A. (previously very much a Mommy’s girl) now says she is unhappy and wants to return to live with her father.

Mother is now in floods of tears and sister S. is very unhappy at the thought of being separated from A.
If it matters, their father is in arrears with child support. The mother’s pro bono lawyer has not been approached yet (this has only just happened) but in the past has not been effective in chasing up the arrears.
Your advice will be very welcome.
posted by lungtaworld to Human Relations (11 answers total)
A. said this once, or she is saying repeatedly with determination and a plan that she intends to do this and is going to obtain her own lawyer or otherwise make this happen?

Give it a couple of weeks. Change is hard and custody swaps are a shitty deal for kids, and the adults around them need to be prepared for that. Mother needs to go cry in another room out of earshot if she needs a second to get over the shock, the rest of the adults need to calm down.

The custodial parent is in charge here, not the children. A. can have all kinds of opinions, and can voice whatever thought crosses her mind, and that is different than her being able to change the reality of the situation. Eleven-year-olds wish a lot of things, and they don't have much empathy yet. She could have just as easily said it to see if her mother would reassure her about her place there. Maybe she just needs to hear "This is the arrangement we decided was best, and it's not changing anytime soon." Maybe she's nervous about school starting. "I'm gonna go live with my dad!" is a threat as old as custody agreements. Dig a little bit before sounding the emergency sirens.

Maybe their mother can have a heart-to-heart - or a series of them - with A. (and also S.) and find out what's going on? They can also pursue some educational materials about making custody situations less emotionally difficult for the kids. It'll never be perfect, but it's the kids' emotional needs that need to take precedence here. Expecting them to come home fine and dandy and completely unbothered by the situation, or willing to fake it like tiny adults, is completely unreasonable.

Most states have an office for enforcing support orders, by the way. Someone can look into that too.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:10 PM on August 14, 2017 [18 favorites]

Does A like school and have friends? If no, fear of the upcoming school year may be behind her new wish. If yes, then let it all slide for a few weeks (e.g., tell A that these things take time to sort out, but while a move is unlikely, the topic can be discussed anew after the winter holidays). Either way, focus on ensuring that A has plenty of friends and activities and a good school experience so she gets back in the groove of life at home. Also, mother should hide her tears and avoid stirring up S on the topic in any way, both to avoid drama. Hopefully, the idea will die on its own.
posted by carmicha at 1:11 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Depending on what state you're in, children may be able to choose which parent they want to live with at age 13 or so. Mom can sit down with A. and ask why she'd like to live with Dad. Mom could talk with Dad to see if this is something Dad even wants or can manage. Mom needs to get over her shock & panic, and leave money out of it. Kids go through stages and A. may be testing some independence from Mom, may be homesick for a friend at Dad's. may be worried that Dad is lonely, etc. I was good at hiding my financial situation from my son, his Dad whined about money a lot. My son learned some serious misunderstandings from his Dad that made things more difficult than they needed to be. Mom should do as much listening as possible, and look for the solution that will best meet A.'s needs. Therapist if needed.
posted by theora55 at 1:15 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider, since A has been a "Mommy's girl." Maybe what A liked was feeling more grown up from being more independent from her mother over the summer: ready to test her fledgling wings. That could easily manifest in the request to live with her father full-time. I'd also look for hints that A needs more responsibility and more separation from her mother. That may be difficult if the mother is inclined to hold on tight right now since a) she misses her daughter after the summer's separation; b) she wants to hold tight against A's threat to leave, and; c) she won't have seen A handle whatever independence or new responsibility she experienced in her father's care this summer.
posted by carmicha at 1:16 PM on August 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

11 is right on the edge of puberty and the middle school years can be very tricky for the mother-daughter relationship. Good news is this is normal. Bad news is that normal can be bumpy.

First things first. If she hasn't done this already, Mother needs to get her emotions under control in public and not let her daughter see that she is feeling devastated. (Save that for when she has privacy or a safe person like you to talk with) Otherwise, "I want to go live with Daddy" become as powerful weapon that she has just handed her daughter whenever the kid is angry. Remember, no can change custody without the mother's consent and/or a court order. It might be helpful to let daughter know that if she runs away to Daddy's house, she could get Daddy in trouble since both parents have to follow the rules that the judge laid down.

Second, she need to let her daughter know that custody is a legal arrangement worked about her parents and approved by the court and nothing is going to happen right now - not for months, maybe not until next summer so the kid is stuck with mom for the duration. Then Mom can open a discussion about daughter needs to make it better at home. I think carmicha might have it right - at that age my daughter really wanted to be very much more independent that she was. Some of her complaints surprised me. ("I can't even go outside without asking permission." Actually, just wanted her to tell me, she didn't need permission. So we did some work around reset the expectations and rules that allowed her feel more power and independence.)

Finally, since things may be bumpy, Mother should offer as much positive reinforcement as she possibly can for both girls - not around staying/going but just to let daughter know that Mom sees and values her interests and abilities. It will also help Mom stay calm and loving to stay in touch with the good things that she loves about her kids.
posted by metahawk at 1:32 PM on August 14, 2017 [10 favorites]

Mom needs to work through her feelings about this away from A. Some kids spend a year with one parent than the other and it is more likely to happen as the kids get older. In some states withholding contact even for a shift in physical custody would hurt mom's case for arrears or other matters down the road. Courts want to see parents separating visitation and finances as much as possible.

My sister let her kids go live with their dad a year at a time. She had a friend who refused and those kids were eventually removed from the home for unrelated reasons. I say unrelated but the kids began to increasingly act out the lack of autonomy in not being able to see their other parent more and eventually it all came to a head in a big, sad way.

Keep in mind that kids will probably resent deeply a parent refusing to let them live with the other one, assuming it is a very real desire and not a one-off adjustment to being back in the other home. I don't recommend getting in the way of a desire like this if the home is safe.
posted by crunchy potato at 1:49 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Her mom could let her know she understands her daughter's feelings; acknowledge that she understands her daughter would be much happier if she could be with both of them, but that isn't an option, so there has to be a solution that's fair to everyone, not just her...and that her and her father and her sister all love her very much and wish they could be with her all the time.

Then perhaps let her know that you'll talk with the father to see what kind of fair opportunities they can work up so that she can see her father sooner or more often or for a different length of time, but that is something for the mother and father to negotiate, not the daughter. The daughter's job is to let them know how she feels so that they can consider her feelings when the parents have those negotiations, alongside all the other considerations, which includes school.

Finally let her know that whatever happens, whatever changes or doesn't, it will take a while to figure out and she understands how much this whole thing sucks for her daughter. So in the meantime her daughter has to focus on returning to school, spending time with the friends she hasn't seen in a while, and so on.

All of this should be delivered thoughtfully and kindly, when the daughter is in a reasonably good mood, and in private. It should also take as long as possible so that the daughter has as much time to interrupt and say things/ask questions, and the mom should work hard to avoid arguing with her on various things...let her say them, acknowledge the feelings, then when appropriate go back to sharing the things above until they're all shared.

This isn't easy, but it is totally normal, and shouldn't be taken as her daughter rejecting is all about her daughter's own feelings, and should be respected as such. Which doesn't mean she gets what she wants or anything will change, but it should be acknowledged and understood.

Goes without saying, but that negotiation *should* take place; if both parents are thinking kindly of their children, they might figure out a change that makes her a little happier, even if it isn't anything like what she's asking for. It will show you respect her and her feelings, yet still have solid boundaries she has to respect.

Incidentally, my own kids (twins) have decided they hate spending time together, and are aggravating each other, so we're doing occasional weeks where one is with one parent and the other is with the other. It reduced the tension quickly, and they're being much nicer to each other. Respecting their feelings worked a lot better than I suspect fighting them would have...and they don't always get to live apart, just once in a while.
posted by davejay at 3:12 PM on August 14, 2017

To err on the side of being super-safe for the kid, I'll ask- is there any chance there's an unsafe / creepy / inapproprate man or teenage boy she can't avoid when she's at her mother's house? Take an audit of all the men over 12 she's been alone with while she's there. Mom's new boyfriend, family friend, relative, neighbour, caregiver, teacher at the school she'd be attending, etc?

Estimates suggest that as many as 1 in 20 men molest kids.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 3:34 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

It doesn't have to be molestation. It can be any uncomfortable situation.
posted by Peach at 7:20 PM on August 14, 2017

I'm wondering why the daughter is unhappy and what about her father's house made her happier. I would start trying to unpack that, and see if there's a way to create a similar dynamic in her mother's house. If she had more autonomy, as suggested above, maybe it's worth exploring how she can be more independent. Or if there is a creepy and uncomfortable situation, as also suggested above, immediately addressing that would be very helpful.

I'm also wondering how much of this is about trying to get some agency and control over her own life. I am the daughter of divorced parents, and I still remember how ferociously I resented never being asked what I thought or what I wanted. Just talking to her about it might help.
posted by dancing_angel at 8:18 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I appreciate all your answers. I have marked Lyn Never's as "best" but all were good at covering the various points raised.
A. and her mother had a "heart to heart" talk, and yesterday A. went to her school's orientation day where, apparently, she was happy seeing her friends there.
Thank you again from Mrs L and myself.
posted by lungtaworld at 6:48 AM on August 15, 2017

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