Serving the needs of separated and divorcing families

The Danger of Letting Teens Decide Custody

Georgia’s Right to Elect certainly has a place for children who have not had their residential preference respected.  Certainly, there are cases in which this right is in the child’s best interest.  However, like any decision, all decisions have costs.  The list is endless and the solutions are few.

The Ultimate Loyalty Bind

As family practitioners in the field of divorce, we all recognize the damage of loyalty binds on children.  Children may become symptomatic whenever they feel forced to choose.  However, the right to change primary residence creates the ultimate loyalty bind.  Furthermore, it is usually done in secrecy behind the back of one parent.  Keeping secrets from one parent becomes a tremendous burden.   To do so is an ultimate loyalty bind for any child.  In addition it models to the child how to be manipulate and dishonest.  As a result children under this kind of pressure may experience an increase in an array of problems including headaches, stomach, depression, anxiety, concentration difficulties and much more.  If there are siblings and step siblings left behind, the child may experience additional guilt and loss.

Sitting across a dark mahogany desk, is an anxious fourteen year old

child reading a legal document he has come to sign. The brief affidavit

in front of him is cold and to the point.  He is choosing his primary

residence. Strangely he feels like he is getting a divorce from his father.

It wasn’t suppose to feel like this.  He knows that all hell will break loose

when this comes to pass. Until then, he will have a very big secret to keep

from his  father, stepmother and siblings. 

The Pressure Cooker

Unfortunately, there are unhappy parents who begin the process of pressuring their young child from the get go.  It is also natural for children to complain about either parent or about their schedule.  These complaints turn into parental opportunities to “inform” or remind the child of their election rights.  For example, a child may ask,

  • “Why won’t mom let me see you more than the schedule says?    I’m going to miss you and I don’t want to go back yet.”

This natural complaint or desire to spend more time with one parent can become the beginning of pressure to choose one parent over another.  It is not uncommon for some of these children to dread turning fourteen because they have come to believe they MUST choose rather than they MAY choose.  Countless numbers of children have been overwhelmed with relief when they discover that they do not have to do anything when they turn fourteen.  Some children have even admitted to feeling suicidal over this distorted belief.  Furthermore, we have all seen situations in which the pressure is so great the child signs an election affidavit for each parent in two different attorney offices!

The Empower Child

Depending upon the personality and coping mechanism of the child in question, some will use this right to manipulate their parents.  Parents who do not communicate create the ideal environment for manipulation.  How much more likely is this to occur when the child has two homes and parents who do not communicate effectively?  It is not uncommon for children to play one parent against the other and the right to elect may result in the selection of the parent with the least amount of rules and the maximum amount of freedom at a dangerous developmental period.  For some children this may result in increased limit pushing with the parent least equipped or willing to set limits.

The Ping Pong Effect

Some children will take their sense of empowerment one step further.  They may choose to bounce back and forth between parents depending upon the parental rules in each home.  For example, dad may have a later curfew while mother is less concerned regarding allowing the child to stay at home alone overnight.  These children may end up with no schedule for either home or feel empowered by their parents and the legal system to move between homes on a whim.

The Blackmail Card

When children have elected or have threatened to elect, either parent may feel threatened to give in to their child’s adolescent demands. Parents often complain that if they parent the way they value, the child will threaten to leave.  This form of blackmail is built in with the election right.   Moreover, if parents do not co-parent effectively to create guidelines regarding “rescuing” their child, then the parent who sets the most effective age appropriate limits may become undermined.

Ben spends one week with each parent.  Now that he is fourteen he has signed

an affidavit to live with his father.  His father gives him more freedom and less

rules. During visitation,  Ben’s mother tries to set reasonable limits but Ben calls

his father to come rescue him. Ben has complained that he does not want to

return to his mother’s home because she is too strict. His mother has only two

options and neither one has a positive impact on Ben.  Mother can opt to hold to her

limits and loose contact with her son or allow a fourteen year old child to be in charge.

The Big Question:  To Visit or Not to Visit?

At one point I naively believed that the Court allowed fourteen year olds to determine if they would have a visitation schedule after they signed an election. It was not until one Judge insisted that the child in question keep a minimum visitation schedule with his mother that I asked this question.  Interesting enough, I have found that visitation becomes a subjective matter in which the Court may or may not require any visitation.  It has been my experience to hear most Judge’s say things like,  “I am not going to force this child to see the other parent because he is too big to force.”  If a child is not required to follow rules just because of his or her physical size than they should not be required to follow any rules or regulation.  If the new custodial parent cannot get their child to comply with going to school maybe they are not equipped to parent.  Likewise, if a child is required to keep a minimum relationship with the other parent than the custodial parent should be held responsible.  The only exception should be in cases in which there has been some form of abuse.  Otherwise, allowing children the power to estrange themselves from a parent is definitely not in their best interest.  The Courts must take a stronger look at this secondary problem.

The Reconciliation Dilemma

When a child has made the decision to change their primary residence it is not uncommon that the rejected parent may feel hurt or even betrayed.  The period of time between receiving this affidavit and a court proceeding may only increase the discomfort for parent and child.  Then if the child is not required to keep a minimum visitation schedule and they are allowed to determine if and when they will visit their other parent a new problem arises.

Although the child may enjoy his or her new found power they may eventually want to make contact with their other parent.  Many children report this dilemma in counseling.  They are unsure how to go about this reconciliation.  While others believe that their other parent should make the first move.     The wounded parent may “wait” on their child or they may argue and attempt to force the child to keep a schedule.  Either way it usually backfires.  The end result is often a painful standoff.  The child is uncomfortable about returning because they fear how the other parent, siblings and step parent may act towards them.  Many resort to avoidance to cope.  Some children fear feeling guilty while some worry that to reconcile will be disloyal to the new custodial parent.   They may feel so guilty about their decision that they avoid the other parent altogether.

The former custodial parent may feel so rejected that they pout harming the child further by their action or lack of action.  Some may inadvertently increase their child’s pain and discomfort by using guilt to pressure them to change their mind.  Some parents play victim while others may use the election rights to denigrate their co-parent.  “Your mother only wants you to live with her so she won’t have to pay child support to me anymore!  Now I will have to sell the house.”

Sixteen year old Jennifer resides with her father after filing a modification for change in custody at the age of 14.  She and her mother had a positive relationship but over the years Jennifer wanted to spend more time with her father and step mother.  Although her mother was devastated by the decision she tried to handle it in a mature manner. As a result, she told Jennifer that she could decide when she wanted to visit.

The longer mother waited the more uncomfortable both she and Jennifer felt.  They both worried about the eventual reunion that would occur when they saw each other again.  Jennifer’s guilt and discomfort became magnified by the hurt she felt by the fact that her mother did not call her.  Mother did not call because she did not want it to feel like pressure. Mother was hurt by the fact that Jennifer was not even calling her.  Over time, when the younger children were at their father’s home, they defended their mother. They developed increased  resentment towards Jennifer.  The siblings began to blame their father for the family split. Six months passed.  Jennifer and her mother were both hurt deeply, wanted to somehow get back on track but felt that the other should make the first move.  There were at a painful standoff which impacted the whole family.  Without the intervention of a third party to assist Jennifer and her mother, they may become permanently estranged. 

The Family Factor

The cost to the over-all family is extensive.  Siblings are separated for periods of time, extended family members may become emotionally involved and estranged, step parents may feel unappreciated and financial stability can be seriously impacted.

Even though there may be good reasons that a child chooses to change their primary residence it usually results in the questioning of motivation on the part of the other parent or even the child. More times than not the co-parenting relationship becomes negatively impacted by assumptions and beliefs regarding parental agenda.  It is not uncommon for custodial parents to believe the other parent:

  • has encouraged the election affidavit
  • has bribed or pressured the child to make this choice
  • has used guilt and played victim to make the child feel sorry for them
  • has undermined their parental authority with the election process
  • has used the election process only to harm them out of bitterness and revenge
  • has used the election process to alienate the child from them
  • has used the election process only to reduce or eliminate their child support
  • has taken normal parent-child conflict to encourage a change in custody

No matter how positive the motives may have been on the part of the non-custodial parent, their motives are usually questioned which results is an impaired co-parenting relationship. A decline in co-parenting effectiveness has a tremendous cost for the whole family and especially for younger siblings who remain with the custodial parent.

However, when anger and bitterness are at the base of the parent’s motive to change custody, the election process allows parents to use their child as a pawn to hurt the other parent.  For some, the sole reason for wanting the change in custody can be to eliminate or reduce child support.  The following is a real situation of a bitter father who had been looking forward to the day he could really harm his former wife.  The father was paying $900 per month to his former wife in the way of child support.  He had been talking about her fourteenth birthday ever since his daughter was eight years old.  The young fourteen year old girl was now having ongoing conflict with her mother.  Her father stated:

  • “I will increase your allowance to $450 per month if you come to live with me.  I will then save the other $450 I pay to your mother in child support and she will have to now pay me!”

The True Alternator

In the extreme cases in which a parent may be attempting to alienate the other parent, pressuring their child to change custody is the final maneuver in their goal of cutting out the other parent.  In order for a Judge to block the child’s election rights the Court must find the parent unfit.  The question of defining unfit becomes subjective and difficult to say the least.  When the Court is unwilling or unable to block the child’s request, the end result empowers an angry and/or unstable parent to use their child to harm the other parent.

No matter what the reason is for the child’s choice to change residence and no matter what the parent’s agenda may be, children need two parents.  It is up to the Courts to recognize and enforce visitation when no physical, sexual or emotional abuse exists.  Furthermore, it is our responsibility to do whatever can be done to repair relationships rather than destroy them.

The Solution

In the spirit of therapeutic jurisprudence, we must consider the negative impact of Court decisions on the whole family.  Just as divorce waiting periods are required why not election waiting periods have in which a child and the custodial parent are required to attend three or four family therapy sessions to attempt to improve their relationship.  This would eliminate the secrecy of the process and give children a voice in their families rather than run away.  A waiting period would certainly fit the concept of the “child’s best interest.”

In addition, it would behoove the legal system to define the term “unfit” with regard to the election rights. This would assist Judge’s when they recognize the danger of allowing a child to change custody.  For example if a parent is unwilling to set limits with their child is behaviorally or emotionally at risk is this unfit or does the parent have to have a drug addiction to be considered unfit?  At a minimum the Courts should block elections whenever alienation has been clearly determined.

If changes are not made to this law, Georgia’s right to elect will continue to offer a solution while creating lifelong consequences. Some children use the election rights for the purpose intended, and some use it to get less limits by choosing the lenient parent.  Unfortunately, large numbers of these children are the result of  guilt-ridden, manipulation, pressure, bribery and alienated by a statue intended to help families rather than harm them.


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