When Your Child Wants to Change Residency

Dad and kids playing among moving boxes
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So it’s finally happened: your child has announced that he wants to live with your ex. While this news may not be a complete surprise, the announcement is rarely welcome. Before you talk with your child about his wishes, here are some critical dos and don'ts to live by when your child wants to change residency.

Before You Deny or Approve a Request to Change Residency

The following tips will help you engage your child in a meaningful conversation about your family’s residential custody arrangement before deciding whether to change residency at this time:

  • Encourage open communication. Let your child know that you’re open to hearing what he has to say, even if you disagree. Then back that claim up by forcing yourself to calmly hear him out when he opens up to you, rather than cutting him off with your own opinions.
  • Set ground rules for how you communicate together. While different opinions are welcome, rudeness is not. Let your child know that she needs to speak politely when she wants you to hear her. And when she forgets and blurts out something rude, like “You always say no! That’s why I want to live with dad!” gently remind her that you’d like to talk about that after she calms down.
  • Be empathetic. Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you’ve never been through a divorce before, this may be difficult. But a willingness to see—and feel—life through your child’s eyes and heart can go a long way toward establishing true, meaningful communication, so make an effort to consider your child's perspective before you flat-out reject his request to live with your ex.
  • If possible, bring your ex into the conversation. If your ex is in the picture, your child will probably bring it up to him—that is if she hasn’t brought it up already. Instead of fighting it, let your ex know that your child has vocalized this request and set up a time when you can talk about it. Especially when you're dealing with these kinds of challenges, having a healthy co-parenting relationship will help you put your child's needs first without battling one another.
  • Express your fears. If you don’t talk about what you’re most afraid of, those fears will poison your words and actions. Whether you write in a journal or pour your heart out to a trusted friend, take steps to express your feelings and work through them. And if you’re secretly questioning your own motives, consider speaking with a professional about the root of your reluctance. Even when you’re confident that modifying the child custody agreement is not in your child’s best interests, knowing why you feel the way you do can help you stand your ground in ways that support a healthy relationship with your child and your ex.

What Not to Do When Talking About a Change in Residency

As you explore this difficult topic with your child, you'll want to be careful not to do the following:

  • Avoid the conversation. Refusing to talk about things that are unpleasant doesn’t make them go away.
  • Take your child’s point-of-view personally. Your child's request to live with your ex doesn’t have to be seen as a negative evaluation of who you are as a person or a parent. If you’re having a hard time viewing the request objectively, talk with a friend or counselor about how to separate your child’s request from your identity as a parent.
  • Badmouth the other parent. Even when you truly believe that living with the other parent would be harmful to your child’s development or security, avoid saying negative things about him in front of your child.
  • Rush to judgment. Chances are, it took a lot for your child to tell you that he wants to live with the other parent. Don’t just brush the request off. Let your child know that you’ve heard his request, listened to his reasoning, and will give it some thought. Then, after spending a few days thinking about it, bring the topic up again and calmly communicate your point of view while continuing to listen to what he has to say.

Finally, remember that this doesn't have to be a negative experience. It's healthy for your child to express himself openly, and even though the conversation isn't an easy one for you, it's also a sign that you've raised an articulate, thoughtful, emotionally intelligent child—and that's something to celebrate.

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