Teenage male otters deliberately swim into the “triangle of death.” Teenage gazelles deliberately taunt predators like lions and cheetahs, says the BBC1. Fathers of Virginia teenagers, take heart: our species is not alone in dealing with reckless and impulsive behavior from our offspring who are not quite children, but hardly adults. In a split or a divorce with custody issues, do these bad decision makers get to choose the parent with whom they will live?

Parents Teaching By Example

Teenagers defy logic, driven by hormones that are preparing them for independence. You may hope to set a good example for making smart decisions, but once the teen years take hold, nature has other plans. They learned from your examples as infants, toddlers, young children and tweens. But once puberty sets in, they turn to their friends for approval and to media for their moral compass.

Still, in a split, you can set an example of how people behave. You and your ex can treat each other civilly, engage in adult conversations without raising your voices, and talk to your teenagers together without it devolving into your own triangle of rage.

When you begin the groundwork for a cool, calm and collected split, whether a breakup or divorce, the issue of child custody can be a seamless part of the transition from one family to two. Including your children in the discussions is helpful if only to allay their fears. Younger children, says a study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, may worry they will never see one parent or the other again, or be abandoned by a parent.

Teenagers, though, may bury their feelings. They may become depressed, swing from juvenile to very adult behavior, or resent both you and your wife. Add to that the problem of child custody for a person not still a child except in the legal sense, and you have a difficult dynamic.

Who Chooses Custody Arrangements for a Teenager?

Because Virginia law offers the presiding judge some discretion in selecting one parent over the other for child custody, a rational and intelligent child can actually influence the decision.

Code of Virginia includes this in § 20-124.3, titled “Best interests of the child; visitation.” The wording gives the judge (“the court”) the power to have your teenager interviewed regarding her or his choice of parent:

  1. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference

No Virginia judge will take this authority lightly; usually, and armed with the strength of § 20-124.2, “the court may order an independent mental health or psychological evaluation to assist the court in its determination of the best interests of the child.” Virginia judges are not trained psychologists, so they have far firmer footing for their parent choice if they have a report from a trained mental health professional.

Don’t Give Your Teen False Hope

The Virginia State Bar cautions parents against giving their teenagers the false hope that the teenager is the final arbiter; as the Virginia State Bar says, “Giving a child the false belief that the child is the decision maker in matters of custody or time sharing is not only unfair and cruel to the child, but a serious misrepresentation of the law.”

If you hope for a successful outcome from the interview between your child and a mental health professional or the judge, do as little as possible to overtly influence your teen. Avoid putting guilt, fear, or shame on your child since the ultimate decision is neither yours nor your child’s.

Do a Teen’s Wants Ever Matter for Custody?

The law allows the judge to consider the child’s feelings if the child is “of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience,” not simply because the child is, say, 17.

The first hurdle, then, is for your teenager to present herself or himself as capable of the interview and making wise choices. The surly teen who grumbles to the psychologist that his mother does not let him stay out past 3 a.m. on school nights has surely disqualified himself from further input. Similarly, the overly cooperative teen who appears coached by Dad is also probably disqualified.

The less interference you, as the Dad, create, the better your chances of gaining custody. This also means, say experts at Good Therapy, to be civil to your ex in front of your children.

Even if you cannot stand to be in the same room with her, try to see her through your teenager’s eyes. Help your teen maintain that bond.

The court expects you to honor the mother-child relationship. If, in front of your kids, you regularly denigrate your wife or partner during the split, you weaken your position as a mature adult deserving of custody of your teenager.

Reach Out to the Custody Attorneys for Fathers

Assuming you can find a quiet corner in your house, dial 757-383-9184 to reach The Firm For Men. If your teenager will not turn down that awful music, contact us online, or stop by our Virginia Beach offices. We can help with all family law matters from child custody to property settlement. Unfortunately, we cannot legally compel your child to stop hanging out with that boy. You know the one.

1. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121211-animals-that-seek-teenage-kicks