In divorce nothing comes easy, and that tug of war with your ex-partner can take a toll on children. Depending on their age, children have different needs and that’s never more apparent than in divorce cases, where a teenager has to balance their own desires with your role as a parent.
When it comes to custody, of course you want the kids under your care and in your home, but California children are allowed to speak their own mind in the custody hearing.
Age 14 and up
A common misconception is that a child of 14 or older can decide where they want to live. While the court recognizes kids of this age group, it is merely recognition of their voice and opinion. The child does not make the decision: they give input that may or may not weigh into the court decision.
California state law says that children 14 and older must be allowed to share their wishes — whether to a judge, in testimony or another form — not that the court will make its decision based on the child’s wishes. Children under 14 can also share their wishes, with the primary factor being “whether the child is of sufficient age and capacity.”
Children’s needs and psychology
Children of different ages have different needs. With younger children the focus is on stability and bond between child and parent, often being fostered through joint custody and regular time with both parents. Teens want greater responsibility over their own lives, in addition to a generally busier schedule between school and extracurricular activities. Rotating between homes may interfere with natural development and create additional conflict.
It’s not personal
Nothing sounds more personal that hearing your child say they want to live with the other parent, but it’s not a rejection. It’s related to their budding independence.
Court decisions are weighed carefully on the logic, emotion and reliability of a child’s argument. Development occurs at different rates with different children and even though a teen may testify a preference, the court watches for parental alienation syndrome or pressured statements that reflect an untruth from the child.
The key is to talk honestly with children of all ages before a divorce custody decision but also as they grow through new stages of life. Understanding the needs and wishes on both sides of the parent-child relationship will keep the bond strong regardless of the challenges at hand.
Although your child can state their wishes, the court will carefully consider veracity and judgment. While teenagers are learning more about their own independence and their place in the world itself, simply stating what they want is not enough. It has to be reliable and well intentioned. A child’s wishes will be considered in the custody decision, but it won’t be the end-all.