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.
The three Rs: Relax, return to the rules, and reality check
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 response.)
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 problem.
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 future.
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 him.”
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 interest.
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 works.
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:
- There is a logistical problem where the child is living. For example, a teen who plans to pursue a career in medicine but can’t get the science classes he needs at his current school. Or a child with a physical disability cannot get the proper attention in his present location. The non-custodial parent lives out of state or out of the country, and the child has had little chance to spend time with that parent. An older child may voice the desire to “live with Mom for a year,” to develop a closer relationship.
- Their basic needs are not being met. If the custodial parent is not willing or able to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health care, a child may feel he would be safer with his other parent.
- They are being emotionally or physically abused. Today’s children are often world-savvy and know their rights. If they are living with any type of abuse and are strong enough to feel they have a chance to get away from it, they may try.
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.
Don’t make the threat yourself
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 conditional.
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.