Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha:
As my daughter gets into her mid-teens, she’s less interested in spending time at her dad’s. He moved to a Kansas City suburb, and it takes her out of her element and time with friends to go there. He doesn’t like it when she brings this up and blames me for putting this idea into her head. But I don’t see her acting any differently than any teenager. I’d really rather she just go and keep the peace. So then she’s mad at me, too.
Samantha: You’re right — your daughter is just being a teenager. She seems to have no problem with seeing her dad in general. It’s the location she has a problem with. Because he chose to move to a Kansas City suburb, he’s going to have to make some changes in the way he sees his daughter if he wants to be greeted with open arms.
It might help if he came to visit her in Lawrence more often. It helps to set up a pattern so there are no surprises that force her to reschedule with friends. She and her dad could have a Thursday night dinner date, a Saturday walk in the park or a Sunday morning coffee shop outing. By including such Lawrence activities in their repertoire, your ex-husband will show your daughter that he’s making an effort to be a part of her world, rather than dragging her out of her world to join his.
However, she still needs to visit her dad in Kansas City. He can also work to make this more enjoyable. I have friends with divorced parents who have another set of friends at their second home. Your daughter would feel a lot better about spending time in Kansas City if she had friends there.
There are several ways she can meet people. Your ex-husband could host a neighborhood potluck. If he’s intimidated by hosting parties, he should ask around about people your daughter’s age in the community and help set up a time for them to meet. If at all possible, find an activity or group your daughter can join while in Kansas City.
Your daughter will probably not act grateful for these changes at first. She will probably resist making new friends in Kansas City because she already has a group in Lawrence that she really likes. Give it a few weeks. If she still has an attitude, talk to her. Explain that her dad is really making an effort. Tell her that she will be going to her dad’s no matter what, so it’s now about her choosing to make the most of it.
Wes: I generally agree with Samantha. When divorce comes into play, we tend to over-read teenage behavior and believe it is related to the divorce rather than normal developmental changes. Almost every household, married or divorced, has the same set of issues with teens wanting more time with friends and less with parents. The goal is to set a reasonable distribution of time. After a divorce it becomes easy to see this as something more malign, like the teen is rejecting the parent rather than growing out of a more dependent childhood phase.
That said, there’s a reason many custody evaluators — including myself — see moving away as a severe impediment to the parent-child relationship. Sometimes a parent will petition the court to move and want to take the child. Judges tend to frown on this for exactly the reasons you’re seeing right now. It’s very difficult to do what we call “distance parenting,” even if you’re just 45 minutes down the road. Just as Samantha notes, participating in the life of a teenager is not about having them come visit you, it’s about getting involved in what they do day-in and day-out. That’s why I remain a fan of shared residency. It allows that level of participation. It’s unquestionably strange to visit a parent on the weekend and pretty much sit around the house watching TV or playing board games. That’s not what the non-divorced families do (except for an hour or two perhaps), so it shouldn’t really be what the divorced one’s do. In fact, the best advice I ever received on how to work with divorced families is to help them “act normal,” meaning to do as many things as possible to make the divorce fade into the background and let a normal family life come to the front.
That’s harder to do when a parent has moved, but it’s still possible. Rather than try to build up a second friendship group — which I think would be pretty tough — I encourage the distant parent to invite a couple of their child’s friends to come along for the visit. That can turn the weekend from a chore to a fun opportunity to spend time in the city.
Bottom line: The court’s standard for any matter related to child custody is the child’s best interest. I agree that your daughter has an obligation to make a good relationship with her dad, but he would be wise to consider her needs and desires and to flex with them to the extent they are appropriate. That’s what the rest of us do, and while divorce changes many things, it does not change that.
Contest: The annual Double Take coauthor’s contest will go to press on April 13 with a challenge question for teens to answer. High school seniors from Lawrence High Schools and the surrounding area are eligible. A scholarship from Family Therapy Institute Midwest goes to the winner for the 2010-2011 school year. Deadline will be April 27, with interviews May 1.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.