Custody of Teenagers in Virginia

No matter how old they are, your babies are still your babies – and a custody case is still scary. Still, a custody case where older children (say, 13-14 and older or so) are involved is considerably different than a case where young kids are involved.

For older children and teenagers, the school calendar has a LOT to do with how coparenting responsibilities will be shared between parents.

For one thing, school is a factor. We don’t have kids who are too young to be in school, where anything can go in terms of a custody and visitation arrangement. That, just by itself, means that there are several things that are true: the parents will need to live relatively close to each other or find out that custody is a win/lose proposition, because parenting time can’t be shared on a week/on week off or 4-3-3-4 schedule or anything approaching those two without close proximity while the kids are in school. You can’t live an hour or two apart and commute to get the kids back and forth to school every weekday.

It also means that breaks from school will guide a lot of our discussions about how parenting time will be shared. In general, the school’s academic calendar will be really important as it relates to your exact custodial arrangement.

We also usually don’t have any kind of childcare or other expenses (unless we’re talking about a special needs child), so that removes a great deal of the stress and expense involved.

In many cases, especially where a Guardian ad litem is involved, the child’s preference does come into play in custody and visitation determinations (though the child is unlikely to testify).

It can be a question, too, of the child’s preference – at least, inasmuch as the Guardian ad litem, if one is involved, relays their preference to the court (but not so much in the sense that the child would be called to testify regarding their preference). I find, too, that this often relates as much to the child’s feelings about where his or her friends are, where they can participate in their activities and extracurriculars, and other concerns.

When courts make determinations for custody and visitation – for older or younger kids – the court is looking at the ‘best interests of the child’ factors. What’s in a child’s best interests isn’t something that is fixed; it’s constantly changing, so sometimes the parenting plan has to be updated with respect to those changing demands.

Big changes, like taking a child from private to public school or relocations, are often harder for parents to accomplish when the children are older. In a lot of ways, the court likes to maintain the status quo – unless there’s some major reason for changing things around – because stability and continuity is so important for children.

In most cases, custody and visitation is established by the parents, by agreement, and not by the court, but it’s still important to be aware of how the courts typically feel about specific issues.

Ultimately, custody and visitation arrangements work best when they’re the result of collaboration and agreement between the parents.

The ideal outcome in a custody case is often one that the parents reach together, by agreement, rather than what might be ordered by a judge.

That’s not to suggest that it’s easy – in fact, I don’t know that it ever is. But, also, as the children get older, certain things become more difficult. If a child has, for example, a decided preference for one parent over the other, it becomes more difficult to combat that.

After all, (1) who wants a MISERABLE teenager living with them, and (2) what are you going to do once they start driving? You can’t chain them in their bedrooms, after all.

Still, it’s a fine line, because a child – and an older teenager is still a child – doesn’t have an automatic right to have a preference in our courts. They are the subjects of a court order, and they have to follow it. The parents have to enforce it, to the absolute best of their abilities.

Even when a teenaged child doesn’t want to go to visitation with their other parent, technically you are supposed to send them! (Yes – even when they’re physically bigger than you!)

I often hear that parents are loathe to send their children to visitation when they really don’t want to go, but, at the same time, there can be consequences for NOT sending them. After all, to not send a child (even a 17 year old boy who outweighs you by 100 pounds) is a violation of a court order, and means that you could face repercussions in court. I understand the physical and logistical issues associated with forcing a child like that, but, at the same time – the LEGAL answer is clear. You’re supposed to force them.

If you don’t, on top of risking a finding of contempt and other judicial consequences, you do sort of open the door to your child’s father arguing that you’re using your influence to create some kind of parental alienation – which is not a place you want to be in.

There are no hard and fast answers, except to acknowledge that custody and visitation of older teenagers is a different beast than custody and visitation of small children. You should be aware of the potential issues that can come up, and work with an attorney to create a plan that will allow you to be as prepared as possible, no matter what comes up.

To the extent possible, we often advise holding on with an open hand, which is to say that we allow the children some voice (to the point that it’s helpful and not harmful, of course), but always make clear that there’s a home and a safe place waiting for them.

In the case of teenaged kids, it’s even more important for mom and dad to have an open line of communication regarding the child’s whereabouts.

To that point as well, it’s important that mom and dad communicate about the child, too. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard that mom thought a child was at dad’s and dad thought a child was at mom’s – only to find out that neither were true. In the case of an older child, you have to work smarter to keep them safe, and a big part of that includes an open door of communication between you and your coparent.

It’s not easy. Teenagers never are! Though I’ve not yet parented any myself, I do vividly remember being a teenager, and I also have heard a million of these stories from other concerned moms. It’s a season, though, and you’ll get through – but it’s best to have an awareness of the issues that can come up and how to troubleshoot them.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced custody attorneys, give us a call at 757-425-5200.

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