Unless there are allegations of abuse of any kind—physical, emotional or sexual—parents should not bring a child into the decision-making process that comes with divorce and child custody. The Tennessee Bar Association emphasizes this stance in its September Journal, making the point that visitation is an adult issue brought on by an adult problem that also requires an adult solution. Despite what some parents may feel is an attempt to be fair to the child by allowing them input, it is anything but fair.
Children are put in the middle when asked to choose which parent they prefer as a primary caregiver, and in any case, are not equipped to use good judgment in complicated situations. Sound judgment is something that comes with age and experience and is learned in a retrospective manner that cannot begin until after a child matures and moves on. Even asking children about how much time they wish to spend with a parent puts them in the position of disappointing one or both parents and sets them up for feelings of resentment and self-incrimination. This is especially true in situations where one or both parents could be seen as “passing the buck,” and putting the weight of the decision on the child.
Many courts allow children to have input into custody hearings, but a family court judge is not required to abide by the child’s wishes in reaching a decision. Tennessee code says that the court can certainly hear the child’s preference upon request, attaching greater weight to the wishes of older children. However, allowing children to make a custody or visitation decision for themselves goes against the state’s policy of keeping the best interests of the child first and foremost.
Mental health professionals agree and offer many reasons for not involving children in these matters. Reversal of roles, or parentification of children, is one reason. Having the child make the decision can leave him or her with a range of issues, including:
- Headaches and stomach aches
- Substance abuse and self-harm
- Trouble forming peer relationships
- Depression and anxiety
- Disruptive behavior
Involving children in visitation decisions can also leave them open to what they may perceive as a hostile experience in court, being questioned by attorneys. It puts them in an emotional tug-of-war with no good outcome and long-lasting feelings of guilt and regret.
When parents cannot come to a decision on their own, they can turn to a forensic child custody evaluator. This person investigates the situation, interviews parties, documents issues and draws conclusions that become recommendations to the court about parenting time.
The information in this article is of a general nature and not intended as legal advice.