What to do When a Child Chooses to Live With an Ex Spouse

For children, especially younger ones, divorce can be confusing, painful and a cause for guilty feelings. Many children are under the impression that the divorce is because of them. Not only is their routine disrupted, but also the support they felt with both parents around is now gone.

In some cases, especially those where the parents live a significant distance apart, the child can find him or herself spending a majority of time with one parent. At some point, the child may choose or express a desire to live with the other parent, presenting both the child and the custodial parent with additional challenges.

For parents facing a situation where a child asks to live with a former spouse, Stephanie Burchell, a marriage and family therapist, suggests that parents keep the following points in mind.

  • Don't badmouth the other parent. The child loves both parents. For one parent to present the other parent as the "bad" one is unfair and can cause even more stress.
  • Cover your legal bases. In most divorce cases, one parent is legally appointed the custodial guardian. When a child leaves that parent to live with the other, make sure that parent can sign for things such as school trips or medical consent forms.
  • Recognize the other parent's importance. When a couple divorces, they are divorcing themselves but not the child. Let the child know that the other parent loves them and is an important part of their life.
  • Remain active in the child's life. Simply because the child has gone to live with the other parent doesn't mean you give up your rights. Stick to a visitation schedule so that your child has both parents involved in his or her life.

Additionally, it's important to understand why a child might want to live with the other parent. For younger children, the threat of living with the other parent could be a form of manipulation and a way to test boundaries. It is important in this case to keep firm with any punishments or restrictions. Anything less can be detrimental to your child and the relationship with your former spouse.

In some cases, however, there may be some underlying problem, especially when the request to move comes during a calm time in the child's life. Similarly, with older children and teens, talk it out. Sometimes money is involved ("Dad lets me buy stuff mom won't"), while other times the simple act of experiencing both households is the desire.

In any case, if you feel the move would be harmful to the child, whether because of abuse or other issues, fight for your rights. Working with an attorney experienced with family law issues can help ensure that your rights as a parent and your child's best interests are both protected.