Custody change: helping your preteen

My son and I were separated when he was four. He lived with dad. We have always been extremely close, and after fighting for custody for three very long years I finally have my son living with me. He will be 11 this month. He is a very sensitive boy and he has been with me and my husband for six months. Things have been better than expected, but I do have a few concerns. I found him crying one evening and he said that he didn't know why -- that he was just bored and sad. Last night it started again. It just seems to come out of nowhere. I have asked him if this wasn't what he had expected and if he wants to return to his father's. I just want him to be happy, no matter where he chooses to live. How can I help my son deal with this change in his life?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Though it is natural for your son to have "bad days," it is important that you do not underestimate the pain involved in separations of any kind, particularly that of a primary parent. Do not overreact by sending him immediately back to live with his father. But do not minimize the wake of emotional adjustment caused by being "caught in the middle" of a custody battle. You are right to consider the strain that this put on your son which adds to his normal developmental stresses of growing up.

Children may harbor feelings of disloyalty which can fester unseen, only to resurface in later developmental transitions such as adolescence. You are fortunate that your son is willing to "show" you his feelings. This gives him opportunity to work through a major life adjustment. Your son's sadness is not simply caused by your moving him, as the parental conflict was already prominent in his life prior to his change in residence. But the move has no doubt surfaced the pain inherent in his experience of feeling caught between the two parents he loves. And he is required to let go of the life he has known with his father, which also carries significant loss.

At the age of 11 he is preparing for middle school. If he has lost friendships or contacts with old friends due to the move, he will feel more vulnerable as he enters adolescence. Because everything changes (hormonally, educationally and socially) at this time, it may be a harder transition for him because he already experiences himself to be on changing ground! Be aware of this, so that you can make extra effort now to help him establish friendships, as well as memberships in appropriate clubs and activities. But expect that he will feel empty and sad for his old friends and familiar surroundings. This is a natural part of letting go. As he fills up with new friends and situations, the old attachments will surface to be grieved. Expecting it will make it easier for you to support him through these changes to establish a firmer connection with his new surroundings. It will also be important for you to separate your pain from his so as not to compound his losses with your own.

Your heart is in the right place, but making room for his feelings may prove difficult for you. Consulting with an individual therapist could assist you to examine and resolve feelings rather than acting on them precipitously. Individual counseling could help you resolve your own anger and sadness so that you are more available for accepting his feelings through this transition.

Keep in mind that it is not possible for him to only be happy about living with you. Though he may experience great joy in being with you, he will inevitably miss his father who he has lived with since age four. Pain is unavoidable, as the reverse would likely be true for him if he were to move back with his father. Keep his best interests at heart by making space for his "down" as well as "up" feelings.

Be aware that depression can result from unexpressed anger. You should be worried if your son does not express anger towards you. When his anger does surface, try not to take it personally. The more you can absorb his anger and sadness without rejecting him or making him feel guilty for these feelings, the easier his adjustment. And the more resolved you can be about your own guilt and anger, the greater will be your ability to accept his feelings neutrally. You would do well to consider consulting a competent child psychologist for assessing the benefit that counseling could have in your son's current adjustment. He may not feel comfortable expressing all of his feelings to you at this time and could greatly benefit from a listening "ear" that is separate from the parental conflict. He may feel great relief to have his own place to express negative feelings and sort through the emotional turmoil he must be experiencing.

It is not clear what your visitation arrangements are or have been. Naturally, it is best for your son to have as much access as possible to both parents. Visitation with his father assures that he maintains his relationship with him. If distance is a factor, it may be necessary to arrange longer periods of visitation over holidays or weekends. And looking forward to these visits, calling on the phone and email can provide your son with the ability to connect with his Dad when he is away from him.

Let your son know that you support him in having a relationship with his father, even though he is living with you now. Work to accept his sadness and (yes) his anger. By showing your willingness to absorb his negative as well as positive feelings, you will help him experience and trust in the depth of your truest love.

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