Nearly every child makes an innocuous threat to "run away from
home" at some time during his childhood years. The idea appears as
a quick solution to a bad situation (having to live under parental
rule). Mature parents will see it for what it is, and watch it
disappear as quickly as it came.
Kids from split families get the same idea. However, their
threat to run away can feel far more serious when the place they
want to run to is the other parent's home. The words, "I hate it
here-I'm going to live with Dad!" can strike a painful chord in the
divorced parent's heart. Feelings of betrayal, guilt, anger and
fear can escalate a conflict in seconds.
The situation doesn't have to be as threatening as it sounds. If
parents keep a few basic guidelines in mind, they can stay calm and
get everyone back on a reality track quickly.
To manage the angst that surfaces when a child wants to live
with his other parent, put the following plan into action:
Relax. As with any conflict, no one can
function well when emotions are running high. If your child hits
you with the "I'm moving to Mom's house!" line, try to stop before
you do anything and take a deep breath. If you respond to your
child from the deep feeling that it triggers, you will only add
fuel to the fire. You may very well say something that will hurt
your child. ("Fine. Go. See what I care!" is a common immediate
You and your child both need to calm down. That may mean that
you need a "time out" from each other, whether that's a physical
separation in different rooms, or just a silent truce until your
hearts are beating calmly again. The fact that your child has made
this threat means he is feeling something strongly right now.
Neither of you will be able to deal with it until you can talk
rationally. Take as much time as you need, but try to get back to
it before the day is over.
Address the real issue. The threat to run away is usually not a
true desire to live with the other parent. Generally, it is a
reaction to something else that has occurred, most often some kind
of restriction or reprimand that the child does not like. Whatever
the case, the real issue needs to be addressed to solve the
conflict. Depending on your child's age and ability for
self-insight, you may start by saying, "I think you must be really
upset if you would talk about wanting to leave home." Then find out
what the trigger actually was, and work on solving that
Threatening to move out can be just as disturbing to the child
as it is to the parent. A child usually does not really mean what
he says in the heat of the moment, and he may later fear that his
parent will actually take him up on the idea. Help him to
understand his comment is a sign of frustration, and people often
make extreme statements when they are feeling overwhelmed. Teach
him to recognize his feelings and work on the underlying issues so
he can catch himself before he makes the same threat in the
Return to the rules. Every split family should
have some basic custody rules in place that everyone understands
and agrees to follow. Sometimes these are spelled out clearly in a
custody agreement and restrictions may not be open to change unless
the family returns to court and files a new agreement.
If there are no legal limitations set up, parents should agree
on household limitations that are in the best interests of the
children. They should explain these rules clearly to the children
(age-appropriately), and adhere to them under all usual
circumstances. Custody rules create a structure for the family and
provide security for the children. They should be specific and
clear-and followed consistently.
For example: "Jared will live with Mom until he is 18. He will
visit Dad every other weekend, for two weeks in the summer, and at
other times specifically requested by Dad and agreed upon by Mom
and Dad." Not: "Jared will live with Mom except for when Dad wants
Unless there are extreme circumstances underlying a child's
threat to live with his other parent, everyone should be reminded
of the custody rules that have been set up in his best
Why move? The child can harbor romantic ideas about what it
would be like to live with the non-custodial parent. This is an
offshoot of "the grass is always greener on the other side"
illusion, and stems from having life generally go easier at the
weekend parent's home simply because less time is spent there. Due
to the time structure, there are often fewer chores-sometimes none
at all-and fewer discipline problems. Because they often spend
weekends and holidays at the home of the non-custodial parent,
there are more fun activities and less of the daily grind. Kids can
get the idea that life at the non-custodial parent's house would be
like living at Disneyland.
Finally, children know that this threat is the easiest way to
hurt the custodial parent. Kids in any family structure generally
know how to push their parents' buttons, and the guilt of divorce
is a big, glaring button in split families. Children know that "I
hate it here; I wish I lived with Dad/Mom," will strike right at
the core of your vulnerability. When they are hurting, they wish to
hurt back, and they know that this comment will be the one that
There may be times, however, when the wish to move is not
impulsive. This can happen with older children who have a greater
ability to reason and look into the future. Teens or early
adolescents may voice this desire if:
Can they really go? No matter what a child wants or threatens,
in the state of Illinois no one but a judge has the authority to
change custody arrangements. A child's thoughts and feelings can be
taken into consideration, but the wishes of the child alone are not
controlling at any age.
Both the law, and the best interests of the child, favor
stability. This means riding out the ups and downs of a
parent-child relationship instead of switching custody arrangements
just because you have an argument, or even a lot of arguments. It
not only provides stability, but also teaches children that they
can hang in there even when life isn't perfect. It forces them to
work through relationship issues rather than run away from them. It
helps them experience the warmth and security of people who stay
together through good times and bad. It sends them the message that
they are an important commodity.
Sometimes a "reality check" can be helpful for
a persistently unhappy child. Perhaps you can agree to a
longer-term stay with the non-custodial parent. Both parents must
agree that the child will live with their other parent for a short
time under normal daily circumstances (not just as a vacation).
This could mean the child will have chores and household
responsibilities, need to be in daycare, have homework rules and
curfews. A "reality" visit can break the fantasy about the other
parent's house being better.
In general, it is best for kids to stay where they are as long
as there is proper care. There will always be exceptions, however,
and if both parents, the child, and the court all agree, there may
be times when a change is warranted.
While it may be tempting to use the threat of sending a
misbehaving child to live with his other parent, do not give in to
this idea. Realize that however deep your hurt, anger or
frustration with your child, threatening to "give them away" is not
an appropriate form of discipline.
Children get most of their security from their trust in their
parents' love. In a split family, this security has already been
shaken because its source has broken apart. Children need to know,
above all else, that no matter what happens, where they live, what
circumstances change or how they behave, their parents will not
stop loving them.
When you tell your children that you wished they lived with
their other parent, or, that if they don't behave you will send
them there, they experience this as abandonment and the pulling
away of your love. They can fear not only for their physical
safety, but also for their worth as a person. When they feel that
your love is conditional, they learn that their own value is also
To keep your kids on steady ground, make sure they understand
the difference between your feelings about their actions and your
feelings for them. While you may sometimes hate what they are
doing, must set limits on their behavior, or provide consequences,
you never stop loving them. Help them to understand that your
commitment to their well-being runs far deeper than any angry
feelings or problems between you.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in
Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24. She can be
reached at (847) 782-1722.
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