Q: Can my 16 yr old refuse paternal visitation due to his contentious relationship with his dad? We share joint custody.
We have share joint custody for 15 years following our divorce, but my son is upset over unhealthy relationships and conditions in the home. He recently opened up to me and expressed a lot of frustration. He actually had a break down from not being able to handle the situation any longer. He feels he doesn’t have any autonomy over his life and choices (he makes really good choices) and is routinely belittled and controlled. He would like to discontinue joint custody, or severely diminish the time he is required to spend there, but is concerned about the consequences from expressing this. With current lock-down situations, we wonder if legally anything would see a courtroom in any timeframe to make the fight worth the cost. He has a little over a year before he reaches age of majority, but he has two full years of high school remaining. All parenting agreement uses the language of age of majority, so would he at least be free to do as he wishes his senior year?
A: I understand this can be a difficult situation to navigate. Sometimes divorced parents can feel stuck between following a court order and supporting their child's wishes. This might be an excellent opportunity to use those co-parenting skills and have a conversation with your x-spouse. This isn't always easy, and it can be even more difficult when relationships are unhealthy and strained. But there are divorce professionals that can help that you can reach out to before heading into a courtroom fight. This is especially true in these times where access to a judge may be severely limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Have a conversation with your x-spouse. Focus on the concern you both have for the well-being of your son and how you can support him to work on a healthier relationship with your son's father.
- Ask your child's father if he would be willing to talk to a co-parent counselor or a parenting coach. Mental health professionals that offer these services can help x-spouses communicate better as parents and can help the parents talk to their child about the stress that they are feeling.
- Talk to your child's father about getting your son some time with a counselor or social worker to give him an outlet and support him in navigating this situation.
- See if your x-spouse would be willing to talk to a mediator as a lower conflict out-of-court option. A mediator can help you explore the issue and reach an agreement for a temporary plan or a plan that you use to permanently modify your current order. An attorney mediator cannot represent either parent or give legal advice, but with her legal knowledge and experience she can provide some information to both parents about what hashing it out in court might look like. The goal would be have a structured place to communicate using a professional that has experience with child custody issues in court so that you and your x-spouse can reach a mutual agreement without having to battle in the courtroom. As a bonus - you can almost always get to a mediator much quicker than you can get to a judge.
Many people don't know they have these options. I think when faced with less litigious alternatives, most people are willing to try one of these lower-conflict options to resolve the issue and stay out of court. As a bit of background, I've been litigating child custody cases in court for over 10 years and I am also a divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer that has helped many other people resolve these issues in out-of-court processes as an alternative to litigation. It might be worth reaching out to a co-parent counselor or mediator in your area to get some information about these options. Best wishes!
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