Our firm frequently is asked the question of when it is up to children to decide where and with which parent they want to live. When are children mature enough or deemed fit by a court of law to make that kind of decision? We understand that these questions are difficult and want to help.
In order for a child to make this decision, he or she needs to be of sound mind and at a particular stage of cognitive development for the courts to honor it. For years, a set age never existed, but has recently become 14. At 14, the courts believe children to be of a cognitive level capable of making that decision.
We know that at 14, teenage children are also capable of making poor decisions, especially for purposes that serve themselves or even spite others. However, the courts do listen to reasonable requests about their preferences regarding their living situation. As frustrating as this may be, your child does have this right at a certain age, and it is important not to take the decision personally.
In Bruce McCracken’s article, “Tips On How To Cope If Your Child Wants To Change Homes,” he uses a case example of Melinda Johnson. Melinda son suddenly wants to move in with his father, and this worries her for very understandable reasons. Throughout the article, McCracken also consults authorities in family therapy who shed light on reasonings behind children of divorced parents to look for a change.
As Melinda’s son suddenly proclaims that he wants to live with his father, 4 years removed from the divorce, this comes as a painful blow for Melinda. This is confirmed in Stephanie Burchell, a licensed marriage and family therapist out of Dallas, as she writes that this situation can often “[conjure] up old wounds and reminders of a failed marriage.” Melinda understandably did not see this request coming.
Following her reaction, Melinda then begins to wonder why her son would suddenly decide this. McCracken then cites a renowned clinical child psychologist by the name of Michelle New: “They may simply fall prey to the common wish for the ‘other side’ where the grass is greener”, referring to the teenage desire to live where is more freedom or less immediate conflict.
Melinda had reasonable suspicion in the decision her son made, especially considering the somewhat carefree lifestyle her ex-husband then led. At 17, her son was well within his rights to request that he stay with his father, and Melinda more or less had to let the situation play out.
At 21, Melinda’s son comes back, having suffered perhaps 4 years of less than perfect parenting, but their new arrangement promotes a healthier lifestyle in her son.
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