Sharing Joint Custody of a Teenager: A Reality Check

Q: I've been a divorced father for almost five years. My 16 and 14 year old daughters won't see me or take my calls. I know they would benefit from knowing me better because I could be a positive influence in their lives. I just wish they could see me through their own eyes instead of through their mom's.

A: Joint custody with an angry or bitter ex is tough enough. Add a couple of teenagers to the mix, and the potential for frustration increases exponentially. From the rest of your email, I can see that you are doing SO MANY things well! Kudos to you for communicating so clearly and openly during this truly challenging time.

I can't give you advice about how to change your girls or how they see things. But I hope I can set your mind at ease about your situation; it is temporary, and there are things you can do to create a thriving relationship with your daughters even when they don't live with you.

Several dynamics converge during the teenage years to make joint custody especially challenging. For starters, teens are wired to seek the company of their peers. They still need and want the love and attention of their parents, but it's natural and appropriate for us to become more of a resource to our teens than the source of stimulation, education, and recreation that we once were. We are helping our teens learn to take responsibility for themselves when we step out of the foreground of their daily lives and into the background.

When our kids are young, they constantly beg us to read to them, play with them, or take them to the park. Mommy, look at me! Some kids love joint custody at that point -- after all, they get double or even quadruple the attention they got before, and are doted on by parents who missed them while they were away and are eager to play with them when they return. (Plus two Christmases, woo hoo!)

But with teenagers, quality time often happens spontaneously and on the run -- in the car on the way to practice, shopping for new shoes, or stopping at Starbuck's.

Picture it this way: younger kids thrive on face-to-face interaction with us ... they prefer our undivided attention (not that they always get it, of course!) Teens often prefer side-by-side interaction ... engaging in projects, helping them accomplish their goals, or meeting a challenge together. They relate best to their parents while engaging in meaningful and mutual activity.

Too much face-to-face interaction, with the adult attention focused solely on them (So, honey, tell me about school!) can feel awkward and contrived. Quality time with teenagers rarely fits neatly into the co-parenting schedule.

Along with their age appropriate preference for spending time with peers, teenagers are often involved in activities which make living in two houses a real hassle. Sports teams, homework, clubs, jobs, and other after school activities make for a full schedule. Just keeping track of their books and equipment can be a nightmare.

It's not at all uncommon for kids in high school to grow very tired of having two homes and ask to change their schedule so one place becomes primary. That way they know where their stuff is, can make transportation arrangements, and their friends always know where to find them.

So where does this leave you if you are the non-custodial parent? Well, often it feels like you have been LEFT OUT.

Things may have changed, but you can still sustain a relationship with your teenager. It may not be exactly what you expected, but then again, not much of life turns out as expected anyhow.

It will take some grace and grit to maintain a healthy connection with a teenager who does not live with you. You may have to let go of any preconceived notions about family life and quality time.

Parental neediness practically repels teenagers. They want you to trust that they love you without asking them to remind you. They want you to understand if they get invited to a concert at the last minute and would rather go than come to visit you. They want you to be so confident in your mutual connection that you don't need emotional maintenance from them.

They want you to come to their games, even if you don't get to talk to them afterwards. They want you to mail cards and notes, leave voice messages saying I love you, and text them to say good luck on your test today even if they don't respond with gushing gratitude (or even respond at all!)

Basically, they want to be able to count on you - to take your love for granted. Kids want unconditional love and support from their parents. If you keep track and tell them they are not showing that they love you enough, they only lose respect for you, and may want to see you even less.

What may be the antidote to your particular situation, Divorced Dad, is to loosen the reins, stop keeping score , and turn your attention to creating mutually fulfilling relationships with other adults.

See if you can engage with your daughters from a place of generosity rather than reciprocity. Don't underestimate the power of persistent patience, but also don't expect your kids to meet your needs for love, approval, and attention. It's not their job.

When we as parents have fulfilling lives separate from our children, and find other ways to fill our tank with companionship and affection, our kids benefit from the overflow. When we look to them to fill us up - to tell us we are lovable or validate our worth by spending time with us - we only drive them away.

So go ahead and send your daughters emails. Reach out as often as you'd like. And don't stop reaching out just because you don't get the response from them you hoped for. Doing that is like wrapping a tourniquet around your own heart - it hurts.

Let your love flow to them in ways that feel satisfying and nurturing to you. If you'd like to keep track of something, monitor yourself to make sure that the transaction feels complete as soon as you do your part, so that you are not waiting for them to respond or reciprocate.

If it feels good to offer to buy them dinner, extend the invitation. If they cancel to go to a concert, invite a friend to join you instead. Don't keep track, and don't try to measure their love.

Don't try to guilt them into spending time with you. Don't even guilt yourself into spending time with them! Release them to their own lives, and become their lighthouse; steadfastly beaming your unconditional love to your children, so they can return to you when they wish.

Your girls will very soon be over 18, and free of their mother's daily influence. They will be able to decide how much or how little interaction to have with you. When that day comes, greet them with open arms. Wipe the slate clean of the past, and start anew in the moment.

What they need most from you is the light from your lighthouse to help them navigate the waters of their lives. Keeping score, asking for reciprocation, blaming their mom, or wishing things were different could diminish your light.

Just love your daughters, and love yourself, and express that love as purely as you can. This is the kind of powerful influence that they need to receive from you, and giving it will feel so much better to you than keeping score does.

I'll leave you with the words from my favorite fridge magnet: It will all be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, I'm a joint custody mother and I can relate to so much that you said. It hurts when i want to be part of their life and feel forgotten. But as you've said if I find satisfaction in my part then I can only accept theirs. Thank you again I found this helpful. My son is 19 and away from home.... my daughter is 14. Teen years are harder form them than me. At least I'm not the teen anymore.

Anonymous said...

Thank you -I want you to know (here in Oct.2012) that your article/advice is still helpful and relavent. I have a 15 1/2 year old son and 13 year old daughter; we share custody but I allowed my son to move in with his Dad in order to attend a better school than the one in my area, which is about 14 miles away. As he grows older he objects to many of my efforts to check on homework or lead him in steps toward college planning, yet I attend all his football games, take him shopping for clothes, and facilitate alot of social opportunities for him by driving him to Varsity football games or other sports events. He is still abusive and harsh with me, calling names and denegrating me because I'm overweight. I needed your reminders to realize that teenagers have to turn alot of their energy into monitoring peer relationships and handling stresses of school and sports, they can't expected to acknowledge our good graces or even our generosity and forward-thinking assistance (re college).I realize that I over-endulge them because I came from an era where my parents were together and I could take them for granted, but I feel like I will always have to "make up" for spliting with their father. Reading your piece reminds me that I really am doing what I need to do for their well-being, whether they acknowledge it or not. And eventually we'll get through this!

karen alonge said...

thanks for taking the time to comment. It sounds like you are aware that there's a fine line between normal teenage occasional surliness and verbal abuse, as well as a line between overly involved and controlling parenting vs supportive and attentive, and are keeping an eye on the situation. Please enlist some professional assistance if you see that either line is being crossed, ok? It's not good for you OR your son for him to denigrate you for your body size. And you are right, you don't have to 'make-up' for splitting with their father - it's okay to hold the standard that you will be treated with basic courtesy and respect no matter who left who.

take care,

Anonymous said...

Thank you - this article is helpful. I have a 15 yr old daughter who has refused to see her father after he moved out a couple months ago (I discovered he had an affair and was writing pornographic literature and posting it on-line). It's been hard to find advice about teenagers when they don't want to see the non-custodial parent. The main reason she doesn't want to see him is that she feels he has ignored her for several years and that he doesn't care about her and she's also upset about why he left). I agree that he ignored her and understand why she feels the way she does and doesn't want to see him. He has made very little effort to contact her since he moved out and refuses to get professional help for his porn addiction. However, he wants me to pass along messages to her on occasion but I don't think that should be my role. For instance, when I told him she got all A's on her report card, he didn't even contact her to tell her congratulations. I started taking her to see a counselor. Any advice on how I should deal with him? I think he needs to take the initiative to repair the relationship with her.

karen alonge said...

yes, it's his job to connect and communicate with her, and your job to support their relationship but not to maintain it for him.

I'm glad you are giving your daughter the gift of seeing a counselor -- very wise!

not sure exactly what you mean about dealing with him, but if you mean should you deliver messages, I think that's your call. if it feels ok, then go ahead. and if you'd rather not, it's okay to tell him you don't feel comfortable doing so.

hope that helps,

Ben said...

I want you to know that your advice is still relevant in March 2016. I'm not in the situation as your letter writer. I have a good relationship with my daughter but she is a teenager and changing fast. I really need to be a lighthouse.

karen alonge said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ben! I'm glad it was helpful. :)

Unknown said...

Thank you, my step daughter is 12 and a half and since she was 2 has visited me and her dad every Friday night and Saturday religiously. Since may she has dropped the Friday night and in the last 6 weeks had hardly come at all. There's been no arguments, no problems and when we've chatted about it she's just said she'd rather stay at home and she doesn't want to hurt her dad's feelings. The bottom line is her dad is feeling hurt. I've tried to tell him that it's natural, that she's growing up and that she's becoming a teen and will want to visit less. They went out for dinner in the week which he enjoyed but she text last night to say she didn't want to come this weekend. He's really struggling and I'm looking for something to show him that it's not personal, it's a natural progression for her to want to stay home and as long as she knows he loves her and he's always here for her when she needs him and wants to see him then it's all ok

karen alonge said...

thanks for writing, Emily.

I would guess you are dealing with two different things here. Yes, it's normal and you are totally right that as long as he remains a strong presence in her life and is there for her, he's doing a great job.

and on the other hand, he is hurting. and although it's hard to see someone we love suffer, empathy is often a really effective remedy for emotional pain.

putting those together, you might say something like: *Gosh, it hurts when they start to move away from us, doesn't it. And even though we know from the day they are born that it will happen, it doesn't make it any easier. Especially when we get so little time with her already.*

He will adjust with time. You can support him in reaching out to her just to say hi, attending sports or school events, and inviting her for a spontaneous dinner or movie, in addition to the regular visits, so he feels he's doing all he can to maintain their connection.