Advice | Should co-parents let teen decide the custody schedule?

Dear Meghan: Is there a best practice for splitting a teen’s time between two homes? My 15-year-old is with their dad half the time. Recently they asked to change the schedule from every week to every two weeks, saying they feel disrupted having to move back and forth weekly. Their dad and I agreed that they are old enough to make this call themself, but we both hate the long stretches apart. Two weeks is a long time without our delightful offspring, who is frankly the most fantastic teen ever.

Are we right to let them have this autonomy, or should we be enforcing a schedule that works better for us?

Split Time: Yes. The answer to both questions is: You are right to let them have this autonomy, and you can enforce a schedule that works better for you. And because the answer is “yes” to both, the reasonable response is to find the middle ground between the teen choosing the schedule that only suits them and creating a schedule that only pleases the parents. This is found in meetings with all three of you and some good old-fashioned compromise.

Of course you love your child, but it’s clear that you want to see your teen more because you also like them so very much (rather than being motivated by control or spitefulness toward your ex); this is a good problem to have. I could only wish that every child in the world would have two loving parents (separated or not) who want them around for the simple reason that they love the child so much. When this kind of connection and respect exists (assuming your teen feels the same way about you), compromises happen much more quickly and smoothly.

My first question in looking for a middle ground is: What does the teen want and need? For instance, do they have an early sports practice at school, and one house is farther than the other? Are they in after-school activities or jobs that go later, hence being closer to school helps with finding more time? Do they need more steadiness because it is hard for them to relocate every seven days with all of their stuff? Living in two places requires a lot of back and forth and extra planning and — coupled with their teen social life — may feel like a lot right now.

I would first get their dad on the phone and assess how he feels about it all, beyond that the teen is “old enough to make this call.” Decide on a dinner or coffee or breakfast with the teen where all three of you can begin to discuss this. I purposely use the word “begin” because often, parents feel pressured to make quick decisions when quick decisions are not necessary. There is no true emergency here.

Start the meeting by expressing how much you love and like this teen and why. While it may seem “extra,” I find that you cannot tell your teens that you love them and why too much! In a time of extreme connectedness (or seeming connectedness) via their phones, it is easy for teens to forget that their family really knows and cares about them. And then, simply say, “You would like to switch homes every two weeks. Tell us why and what you are thinking.” Listen carefully, and don’t be afraid to take notes. Whether it is school schedules, being closer to friends, exhaustion with relocating, write down these reasons and take your teen seriously (which I think you already do).

Then outline your own concerns. “I want you to be able to have a schedule that makes sense for your life, and I am not in love with a full 14 days without seeing you. Your father and I also both have schedules where it isn’t ideal for us to do all of the driving, pickups, etc. for 14 full days. Let’s come up with some compromises.” Let your teen come up with ideas before you jump in. This is a great opportunity to strengthen your kid’s problem-solving and empathy muscles, but our teens often have better ideas than we do. They have a tendency to see the novel or new before we can — it is why they are so creative and alert to new ways of thinking.

Go back and forth until you reach a place where all parties don’t get totally what they want! I am only partially kidding here; the very notion of compromise is that everyone has to give up something. The teen may feel a little put out and you may feel a little sad, but largely, everyone should be okay with the new schedule. Plan to meet in about two months to see how it is going and agree to reevaluate it for the summer, breaks or as needed. Good luck.

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