by Scott Morgan
Scott Morgan is a board certified Texas family law attorney who regularly blogs on the subject of divorce and family law. Check out his blog on the Morgan Law Firm website.
Parents want to see their children grow to become independent, freethinking individuals with the social skills needed to foster relationships independent of mom and dad. Rarely, though, are parents heard to rejoice as their teenagers assert their independence and develop relationships outside the home to the exclusion of time spent with mom and dad.
As an attorney whose practice focuses on divorce and family law, I go to court all the time to enforce child custody and visitation agreements and court orders, but sometimes the law does not provide a practical solution. Recently, a client came to me with a problem that the law and the courts could not resolve. The client was a noncustodial parent who had never had problems with his former spouse regarding visitation with the parties’ only child. Now, years after the divorce, my client could not arrange visits with the child.
I read the visitation agreement, and it was clear and specific as to days and times of visitation.
I would have suggested going back to court to enforce visitation, but my client was not having a problem with the former spouse. The obstacle standing in the way of my client’s visitation was the child or, more accurately, the child who had grown into a teenager.
A visitation schedule that specified that the child would visit with the client on alternating weekends, on specified holidays and for a month during the summer had worked well when the child was younger. As the child got older, something occurred that most non-custodial parents eventually discover about visitation schedules: children outgrow them.
Inflexible visitation schedules minimize conflicts and disagreements between the custodial and non-custodial parent following a divorce by eliminating the need for the parties to engage in discussions about the scheduling of visits. The rigid schedule lets each parent know what is expected and eliminates the potential for disputes.
Unfortunately, the strict schedule that worked so well when the young child did whatever mom and dad said to do became a problem as the child got older. Visitation then took a back seat to school athletics, social events or just hanging out with friends.
How can you as a noncustodial parent maneuver through the teen years and still maintain a solid and involved relationship with your child? Here are a few suggestions that have worked for well many of my clients in their post-divorce teen year struggles.
Forget About Enforcement and Punishment
Without proof that your former spouse is influencing your child’s conduct or otherwise preventing you from exercising your visitation rights there is not much that a judge can or will do about your situation. Unless you and your spouse can agree on a flexible schedule of visitation, the burden falls upon you to resolve your problems with your child.
Threats or punishment will not resolve a visitation problem, at least not in a way that is in the long-term best interest of the relationship with your child. Punishment or threats usually lead to hostility and resentment. Do you want to spend the weekend with a hostile, recalcitrant human being whose only desire is to get away from you?
Flexibility Has to Start With Someone
Show your child you can be flexible. Your visitation schedule may be inflexible, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be. When you are scheduled to visit, extend an invitation to your teenager. Give your child the opportunity to accept or decline. Do not be upset if your teen declines the invitation. After all, it was an invitation and not an order. Extend the invitation again the next time you are scheduled to visit. While at some point you may need to take a different approach, first try to let your child decide that they want to spend time with you. Once you give them the option and make it clear that you would like to spend time with them they may surprise you and agree to go.
Do Not Give Up
If an athletic or other public event in which your child is participating interferes with a scheduled visitation date, arrange to go see your teenager in the event. The message you will be sending is that you want to be involved in your teenager’s life and that you are willing to take the time to make that happen. Make it clear to them that because it is important to them, it is important to you.
Keep In Touch
We live in an age of cell phones, text messaging, emails and countless other ways to stay in touch with each other on a daily basis. Just because your teenager’s schedule does not allow time for you to visit, a text message lets your child see that you are making an effort to stay in touch and stay connected.
Remember, They Really Do Outgrow It
Being flexible, extending invitations and not orders, and staying in touch will help you to maintain a relationship with your child until the day comes that your child accepts your invitation to visit or responds to a text message. They all grow out of it eventually. The trick is not to react during the teen years in a way that harms your future relationship with your son or daughter.