When my niece was four years old, she rode the train in Atlanta for the first time. Afterwards, I spoke with her by phone and asked if she’d had a good time. My niece told me to hold on, then yelled out to her mother, “Mommy, did I have a good time on the train?” Her response struck me then as it does now as a reminder of how much young children depend upon their parents. On top of all the decisions regarding their care and upbringing, children look to their parents for their understanding of what’s right and wrong, whose a friend or stranger, which activities are worth trying.
My niece will officially become a teenager this summer. She no longer asks for her mother’s opinion before forming her own. She no longer takes her parents’ answers at face value; and she no longer accepts all of parents decisions as best for her. Like most teenagers, she will seek to assert her own will, and take control of her own like over the next few years. Teenagers make plans for themselves and for better or worse, their plans often have very little to do with their parents. So what happens when their plans don’t line up with the parenting plan devised by their parents or a family court judge?
In a society where divorce is so prevalent, many teenagers have had decisions affecting their care and upbringing made by the courts as well as their parents. At what age if ever should the child have the controlling voice in custody and visitation matters? Should a girl of 16 be allowed to end visitation with her non-custodial mother? Is a fifteen year old boy old enough to decide to leave his mother’s home to live with his dad? Many parents will read this and answer with an unequivocal no. They will argue that teenagers lack the wisdom and understanding to appreciate the importance of maintaining relationships with both parents. Still, other parents’ experiences may show them the value of letting the kids make the call. These parents may have spent years acting as a go-between or making excuses for the other parent.
Whatever the ultimate decision about custody and visitation, there is value in giving all parties an opportunity to be heard and to hear the viewpoints of the other parties. The mediation table provides a forum for parents and their soon- to- be- adult children to discuss problems and try to work out solutions. Where communication has broken down, mediation can serve as a learning tool, teaching families to actively listen to one another and to be creative in devising solutions to problems.
Angst, rebellion, autonomy. Its typical and most would say normal for these words to be associated with teenagers at some point. Angst, rebellion and autonomy don’t have to mean the end of familial relationships, however. Given the right tools, families can create solutions in a way that recognizes each person’s needs and incorporates each person’s voice.