(To protect confidentiality, names and details have been modified)
Jasmine’s mom and step-dad came to see me after attending our Advanced Issues in Co-Parenting Workshop at the Gwinnett Courthouse. Mom said she had never heard of the workshop before until she went to see her attorney when her daughter said she might like to come live with her. Jasmine had been living with her dad primarily for the past five years and now 14, she was feeling like she wanted more time with her mother. I was impressed that mom’s attorney didn’t just have mom drag Jasmine into the office and ask her to sign an affidavit. Instead, he sent mom to our workshop to hear more about how best to handle this kind of thing. Our Advanced Workshop is held twice a month and it is a small group experience, where parents who are dealing with a difficult court case or who want more specialized advice can come and be heard and get ideas and tips about how to manage their current conflict.
Jasmine’s mom came with an open mind, wanting to spend as much time with her daughter as she could, but also realizing that a fight with her co-parent was probably not the best way to do it. When I encounter parents like that, I want to do everything I can to assist since I know it will mean so much to the teenager if her parents do it well. After meeting with mom and step-dad, I reached out to Jasmine’s dad so I could meet with him. He was understandably upset that his daughter wanted to make a change, but he also was aware that unless he could prove it wasn’t in Jasmine’s best interest, the court would likely approve. We talked about how important it would be to hear Jasmine’s reasons and to not assume that it had anything to do with him or their relationship, but if it did, I could be helpful in healing in the process.
I then met with Jasmine. I would describe her as “precious,” as I do most kids of divorce, especially when they present to me with a polite, sweet and intelligent demeanor. She told me that she was afraid at first to tell her mom that she wanted more time with her because she didn’t want her to use that information against her dad. Her parents had a history of using her to hurt each other. She said that she loved her dad and his house was fine, but she was an only child and her dad worked long hours and didn’t get home until 7:00 most nights. And she found herself wishing she could be with her mom after school since her mom left her work at a local elementary school around 4:00. It made sense to her that she spend more time with mom and visit dad for long weekends. She even presented a schedule to me that looked remarkably reasonable and well-thought out. I praised her for being so proactive and told her I would do my best to help make it a smooth transition.
I had a difficult session with Jasmine and her dad, but it ended well. Dad was sad that he was not going to see her as much, but he also was emotionally intelligent enough to know that he had done an amazing job with her, as did her mother, regardless of their co-parent conflict. He knew, and I reinforced, that less time with her would not hurt the relationship bond they had built. Jasmine also told him that she would always be daddy’s little girl. In the end, both parents agreed to the schedule Jasmine had proposed and they had mom’s attorney draw up the paperwork. Jasmine was going to live with mom and spend every other Thursday-Monday morning with dad. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she left after her session with dad. It was as if the weight of the world was lifted from her shoulders, as she knew her parents cared more about what she needed than winning a conflict between them. I went home that night, thankful for the privilege of being able to do this job.
In the story above, it took about 30 days from start to finish and a lot of hurt feelings were avoided because an attorney had the presence of mind to tell his client to be proactive and do all she could first before seeking the court’s help. I know that there are some cases in which a court case is needed, such as those that include safety concerns for the teen. But in the vast majority, signing an affidavit (without telling a teen that it could cause a big hairy conflict), hiring a GAL, and going through a year-long court battle, will usually create a feeling in the child of wanting to run away and join the circus! Instead, listen to your teen, talk to the other parent before taking action, offer to mediate a solution that reflects age-appropriate needs of the child, and work with a therapist who can heal any issues that may have caused the teen to want to change her custodial parent to begin with. The teen years are precious and a time when they are learning the most about relationships. Years later, they will remember fondly and respect the parent who went the extra mile to keep things simple, even if it meant a personal loss for that parent.