Do I Force My Daughter To Stay With Her Father?


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 125 · Duration: 00:15:21

Do I Force My Daughter To Stay With Her Father?

Do I Force My Daughter To Stay With Her Father

What do you do, when you have a 50/50 shared custody agreement, and your teenager refuses to go back to staying with her father, and he demands that you send her?  

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Today we’re hearing from Sarah. Sarah writes:

I have a 15-year-old daughter and her dad and I have 50/50 custody.  She's always spent more time with me recently because he was remodeling his house.  Now she does not want to switch to his house (it doesn't go the other way around).  She's been at my house about a month.  I always tell her she needs to go to her dad's. I offer to help her get her stuff organized over there, etc, but now her dad wants me to say she isn't welcome to stay at my house (when it is his turn to have her) and give her consequences if she doesn't go to his house.  What is the best way to approach this?

Thanks for your question Sarah, and it’s an important and common question.  I haven’t received many questions regarding parenting in divorced families and frankly, that topic deserves it’s own podcast.  Parenting in an intact or single parent family is challenging enough and when you parent in divorced families, the challenges multiply. 

Parenting in Divorced Families

Now sometimes, couples divorce amicably, respect each other as individuals and as parents and things go pretty well.  They can talk about the kids, their needs, solve problems and support each other.  But often, the dynamics that didn’t work in the marriage, continue after the separation and divorce and those dynamics put the child or teenager in the middle. 

Often, the dynamics that didn’t work in the marriage, continue after the separation and divorce and those dynamics put the child or teenager in the middle.Click To Tweet

Of course, parents in general are going to parent differently. As parents, we all have different personalities and we communicate differently, set limits differently, connect differently, so that’s expected.

But when parents disagree about essential values and decisions, and don’t respect each other and don’t collaborate, that will be experienced by the kids. And when there is chronic conflict between the parents, it will always put kids in the middle.  Different kids will respond differently to this and we’ll see:

  • aligning with one parent against the other,
  • acting out with hostility,
  • manipulating,
  • trying to please both parents, or
  • becoming anxious and depressed sometimes self-harming with cutting, substance abuse, etc.

So if there are issues between the parents or if you are a parent doing a pretty good job and you’re divorced from someone who does things you fundamentally disagree with, things that you see as harmful to your child, that can be unbelievably challenging and painful.

Sarah, let’s take a look at your situation. 

Your daughter has generally spent more time with you even though there is 50/50 custody.  So maybe you’ve been more physically available, maybe you are more intuitive of her needs and create an emotionally more supportive, emotionally richer environment for her.  Now on the dark side, maybe you don’t set as many limits and let her slide and act out without accountability and now she wants to avoid appropriately high standards at her father’s house.  I don’t really know of course although I doubt that’s what’s going on.

But here are some things to think about.

First of all, many kids around your daughter’s age want one home and don’t want to go back and forth.  They simply want one home and will have a relationship with the non-physically custodial parent by connecting in other ways; doing things together, vacations and trips, maybe an occasional sleep over.  The custodial parent may want or need to be out of town at times and there is the other parent and their home to back that up.  So having a primary residence with one parent for a teenager and having and building relationship differently with the other parent is just fine.  What’s missing from your description is communication and understanding of your daughter’s thoughts and feelings.  Why does she want to end shared physical custody? 

  • Is it just the switching, going back and forth that she’s tired of?
  • Is she avoiding limits and accountability?
  • Does her father lack the emotional support skills she needs right now?  So all this starts with a non-judgmental discussion.

In your question it sounds like dad isn’t curious about his daughter’s reasons or feelings. He wants to discipline her into compliance. 

He also wants to tell you what to do and have you demand her to go to her father’s house.  That sounds just horrible. It sounds like bullying is his way of communicating what he wants.  Of course he is trying to have his daughter stay with him at his house so I’m guessing he loves his daughter, but doesn’t know how to give her what she needs.  I also feel for the guy just remodeling his house and probably wanting to share that with his daughter who now doesn’t want to live there.  That would be painfully ironic.

Sarah, you’ve already been encouraging her to go and she’s not having any of it.

So principle number one is;

We need to do what’s best for your daughter; that of course isn’t always agreeing with what she wants, but doing what’s best. And if she wants something that’s reasonable and well thought out, then we should support it because we want kids to grow their independence and their decision making skills

We need to do what’s best for your daughter; that of course isn’t always agreeing with what she wants, but doing what’s best. Click To Tweet

An Emphasis on Communication and Connection

So what is needed here is understanding and that comes with quality communication. 

If her dad is simply not an emotionally available person, and your daughter needs that at this point in her life, then the question is how will they have a relationship together?

  • Maybe there’s a sport or activity they enjoy together and they can engage there. 
  • Maybe they can build a routine for hanging out together at times.
  • They could benefit from counseling together, not with the direct goal of her living again with her father because that would be a disincentive to your daughter to work on the relationship, but to simply improve their connection, with her father learning how to understand and relate to her feelings and your daughter learning to express her feelings and needs in a way that he can hear them.

But once again Sarah, this needs to be flushed out in discussion.  Then when you and she are clear about what your daughter is feeling and needing, you two can sit down with her father and have the discussion.  If doing that is too tense or intense and he’ll be hostile, then utilize a therapist who specializes in custody mediation and let them help your family work this through; not so much with the idea of where she’s going to live, but with the idea of improving understanding and communication among all of you.  Her father is going to be her father for his whole life and he needs to relate to her now in a way where she’ll want to stay engaged with him as she enters young adulthood and adulthood.

Also, Sarah, you don’t want to be in the middle of their relationship.  You can support it but if your daughter reports that she’s unhappy there, you don’t need to do his bidding.

Now, it doesn’t sound to me like either your daughter or her father are particularly good emotional communicators; what I mean by that is being good at identifying and communicating their own feelings or hearing and empathizing with others’ feelings.  So guess what Sarah, that leaves you as the person who will need to step up and be the emotionally mature voice in the family.

Here are two conversations you can have, first is with your daughter and I’ll call her Cori:

“Cori, I hear loud and clear that you want to make our house together your home base, and that’s fine with me; and right now your dad is upset and not accepting that.  I think we need to talk more about what your reasons are, what your feelings are so we can explain them to him.

Then we want to be able to talk about how the two of you will have your relationship and build your relationship, even while you are living here.  Your feelings are important, but if there are problems for you with your Dad, then he needs to hear that and be given the opportunity to listen and make important adjustments.  We always face relationship challenges in life and we can avoid some of them, but other ones, like with a parent, need to be addressed head on.  Like I said, your feelings are important, and you need to communicate them.”

Here is the conversation you can have with her dad and I’ll call him Bill:

“Bill, I understand that you’re upset that Cori doesn’t want to go back to shared physical custody and it would be a big mistake to force her to go.  We need to communicate to her that her feelings matter to us; you don’t want to betray that premise and neither do I.

She has shared her reasons and feelings with me and she needs to do that with you.  She won’t share her feelings if she has to face your anger; that’s too scary for her.  You need to be a safe caring dad for her and whether she lives at your house or not, you can have and build your relationship with her. You are her dad for life.  These next three years will go quickly so we want to make sure that we are parents that she’ll always want to stay connected with.”

Make sense Sarah? So let’s get you out of the middle and instead focus on health and connection, because that’s what it’s really all about.

In Conclusion

So parents and those working with youth and families, physical custody after divorce is a dynamic and ever changing landscape and it requires really good communication and listening skills.  That’s the only way we’ll understand what our youth are feeling and needing.  When they want a change to avoid accountability, and move from a caring yet appropriately structured household, to one that allows irresponsible behavior, maybe not a good idea and it isn’t allowed.  But when their reasons are thoughtful and reasonable, then honoring their wishes is honoring them and we can’t expect our children and teenagers to respect us, if we don’t respect them.

Special thanks to Sarah for her important question. If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program, and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call.  I’ll be happy to talk with you.

And please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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Posted in The Healthy Family Connections Podcast.