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We’re upset about the custody arrangement. What are our options?

(iStock/María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Q: I’m seeking advice on behalf of my husband on how to manage an ongoing problem with my stepchildren. My husband has two kids, ages 11 and 15, with his ex-wife. They are very sweet, good-natured kids. He has been separated and divorced from their mother since the kids were 2 and 6.

From the beginning, the custody arrangement has been unfair, with my husband seeing the children for only two overnights a week (one being on the weekend), plus a separate dinner. He has never been comfortable with this agreement and wants to have the kids live with us more, but his ex has always adamantly refused. Although she has never crossed the line into bad-mouthing my husband or me to the kids, she has made it clear since the separation that she does not view my husband as an equal co-parent and that he exists to act as a free babysitter.

We’re starting to see pushback from his kids on coming here overnight during the week or when they find it inconvenient. They are complaining that they have to wake up too early here on school days, so they would prefer to just not come. (We live nine miles away from their school, which is in the town their mother lives in.) Our response to this has always been that, although we understand that they don’t like having to wake up earlier, it’s a small price to pay to be in each other’s lives. It’s very clear that their mother encourages them to think this way, and usually suggests they stay with us less.

How do we manage this situation with the kids? I want us to ensure there is not some underlying issue that we’re not aware of, but how do we talk to the kids about this without being inappropriate or putting them in the middle? My husband and I are trying to figure out how to get the children to treat our home as theirs, and to recognize that a relationship with their father matters and that we need to be involved in their lives. However, we don’t know how far we can reasonably push. To be clear, the kids obviously love their dad and always seem to be happy when they are with us.

How much do children get to decide a custody arrangement? How much can we talk to them about the hurtful complaints they are making that are leading to their mother pushing to violate the custody arrangement? Thanks so much for any advice you can provide!

A: Thank you for writing in; custody agreements and children going back and forth can be tough. To begin, I want to empathize with the children. Although there is no point in assigning blame here, we definitely know it is not the children’s fault that there was a divorce. And yet, it is most often the children who need to keep clothes and personal items at two different homes and schlep their schoolwork, technology and important items back and forth. Each family member deals with complicated schedules, but the children are the ones balancing this with school, friendships, sports, activities and all the other tween and teen changes that development brings. They are acutely aware of their friends who have one set of parents, one home and one schedule.

I am not suggesting that the marriage should have stayed intact, but I am suggesting that, rather than focusing on the unfairness of the adults’ situations and desires, we need to first understand where the children are coming from.

Developmentally, 11 and 15 are very different stages, but they share the deep desire to be with, to belong to, to matter to and to be understood by their peers. This doesn’t mean that parents don’t matter; it just means that the children are drawn toward their peers. This energy shift can feel pretty personal to all parents, and it can be even worse when kids are feeling prickly about switching homes. The kids just want things to be easy, and their hormones will cause even more eye-rolling, commentary or bad attitudes.

As far as how to move forward, I would tread very carefully when it comes to talking to them about “their mother pushing to violate the custody arrangement.” Whenever possible, do not talk about their mother. This tween and teen are aware of the disagreements between their parents, and they will not be keen to any critique coming from either you or their father. When there is even a whiff of splitting loyalties, the children will be forced to choose. We don’t want this, so avoid talking about the mother at all costs.

Focus on listening to them complain without having much to say about it. Listen to the complaints about the inconveniences and the house being too far, and take it in. Just because you don’t feel as if it’s valid doesn’t mean it isn’t a real problem for them. Maybe their mother is goading them along, sure, but listening to the kids won’t make the feelings worse. When tweens and teens feel heard and respected, they are more likely to work with you instead of against you. As you listen and mirror what they are saying to you (without any judgment), you may find that they just wanted to get this off their chests and that you don’t need to do much at all.

But if they are really miserable and/or not letting it go, I highly recommend using Ross Greene’s collaborative and proactive solutions. This approach works because you have to focus on one thing at a time (waking up earlier, for instance); you focus on the problem, not what’s wrong with the children or the mom; and you must co-create solutions that work for both the parents and the children. Although not as satisfying as, “Because I said so,” this model tends to work because people like feeling respected, heard and cared about. You could guilt these young people, or you could work with them in a way that shows everyone’s feelings matter. This way, you will also not “give in” to losing time with them, unless you are okay with that, and you may even find that another schedule could work for these intense and awesome years.

This is ongoing work, and not everything will be perfect right away (or ever). But the focus is letting the children know that you are listening to them, that you respect them and that, above all, you love them.

Keep an open mind. Good luck.

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