By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Your eldest is from a prior relationship and you’ve long since established
a new family. He or she is now pushing for changes to the residential arrangement
and thus spend more time with the other parent.
There is a pang in your gut. The old issues with the “ex” re-emerge.
You think about losing your child yet again and the impact on the younger siblings
who are not of that former relationship but who will remain with you full-time,
missing the elder sibling.
When parents separate or divorce, precious little time is ever given to the
consequences and challenges to be faced down the road. The custody and access
battle of the day came to a conclusion and the parent with primary residence
or custody envisions that lasting to the day the child leaves home for work
or college. However, the secondary residential parent or access parent, often
holds a dream that one day, their child will come to live with them as he or
she has been living in their primary residence.
Typically these kind of issues surface when the child is in the tween years,
that age between 9 and 12. The child may want more time with the alternate parent
based upon the developing relationship and sometimes based upon a fantasized
view of what the change may provide. The child is supported explicitly or implicitly
by the desires of the alternate parent.
Whether or not to facilitate a change in the residential schedule depends upon
many factors. Parents are asked to consider counseling or mediation to review
the plan and discuss issues arising. In the absence of discussion, the matter
tends to fester between the parties and even between child and parents. In some
cases the festering takes on a life of it’s own and the conflicts that
had long since been settled re-emerge with a vengeance disrupting life for all
Certainly these appear to be complicated family situations. However, the complexity
can be navigated assuming goodwill on the part of both parents to review and
seriously consider change.
Change is inevitable, even in intact families. So it is not change per se that
is problematic, but more so resistance to it. With review, planning and acceptance,
families endure change. If this were not the case, children would not enter
school, grow and eventually leave home anyway. For parents whose child has a
foot in two families, there do tend to be changes beyond what is experienced
in intact families. For children between separated parents who have since re-established
families, there are different changes to face. For instance; as the child grows,
one parent over the other may be preferred along gender lines; there can be
job relocations; the preferred school may be in the area of the other parent.
Facing the changes forthrightly and facilitating change through discussion
and dialogue can minimize negative consequences and help maintain good and ongoing
relationships for all concerned. The degree to which parents can negotiate and
facilitate change, family structure remains somewhat fluid and resilient. Children
get to enjoy and develop their relationships according to their developmental
needs. All relationships can remain intact.
As for the kids remaining with the parent who had primary residence, they may
miss their elder sibling. This does not mean however their relationship to the
elder sibling has ended, but circumstances do dictate a different structure
– a reality that must be faced. These parents must realize a child with
a foot in two families has different pushes and pulls and help all their children
live within that reality so that as they get older, they too learn that negotiation
skills and compromise can make life’s challenges manageable.