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How to Craft a Workable Parenting Plan for Teenagers

When children of divorced parents are young, custody and visitation arrangements are typically dictated by the parents' schedules. However, as children reach teenage years, custody and visitation orders that made sense when the children were younger do not always seem practical. Custody arrangements must now often be designed to work around the child's schedule.

Physical custody and visitation provisions in a divorce decree are often embodied in what is called a Parenting Plan. In early teen years, children begin wanting to spend more time with peers than with parents. As middle school years transition to high school, demands increase on a teen's time as a result of getting a first job, dating and extracurricular school activities such as sports and music. Traditional parenting plans that provide every other weekend and a mid-week visit to the non-custodial parent may become difficult to follow.

If you are going through a divorce as a parent of teenagers or if you divorced years ago and your kids are now approaching their teens, there are a variety of steps you can take to help ensure the parenting plan makes sense for current family dynamics.

Communicate with and listen to your child's wishes. While a child generally does not have the right to choose the primary custodial parent and dictate visiting arrangements, the specific wishes of the child should be considered and given more weight as the child gets older. Encouraging open communication between child and parent is essential.

A teen may wish to live primarily in one home due to proximity to school or work or because most of his or her friends live close by. In these circumstances, a more traditional plan in which the child resides with the non-custodial parent every other weekend may suffice with some added provisions to provide more visitation during the week.

Teens may become angry or resentful if they believe their wishes are being ignored. Making a concerted effort to listen to your teen and then responding in a way that shows you have truly considered your child's wishes will strengthen the parent-child bond.

Be flexible and willing to compromise. Between work and social or school commitments, a teen is likely to be busy much of the time he or she is scheduled to be with either parent. For example, if you are a non-custodial parent and have a visit scheduled for Wednesday night but the teen has to attend a high school sporting event on Wednesday, your choice may be to also attend the event or agree with your child and the custodial parent to switch the visitation day for that week.

Flexibility plays an important role in making parenting plans work as well as leading to good co-parenting. Demanding that a teen rigidly follow a parenting plan provision when that teen has another important commitment makes little sense and will only serve to alienate the teen from the parent demanding such inflexibility. Rolling with the flow and reducing conflict will help maintain a teen's positive emotional well-being. School breaks are often a good time for the teen to spend extended time with the non-custodial parent who may see little of a child during the school year. However, teens will also want to spend time with friends during breaks, and parents should work with their teens to find a workable balance.

Communicate with the other parent. Being flexible requires both parents to communicate with each other. Children, even older teens, require consistency. Parents need to be in general agreement on such things as curfews, driving, dating and discipline so that a teen knows that what is expected in one household is the same in the other household. Once parents reach an agreement on key issues, a wise step is to sit down with the child and discuss expectations. This also demonstrates that parents are supporting each other as well as the child.

Consider creative residential provisions. Assuming both parents live in close proximity, such as in the same school district, something other than every other weekend visitation with the non-custodial parent may work better. If the teen can easily get to school from either parental home, splitting custodial time equally may be workable and in the child's best interest.

There are a variety of custodial arrangements that parents may consider as a starting point. The teen might alternate weeks between parents, switching to the other parent's home every Sunday. Alternatively, the teen could spend the first half of each month with one parent and the second half with the other parent with special provisions for holidays. Another option is to spend every third week with the non-custodial parent.

Parents might break up each week in a 3-4-4-3 arrangement. The teen lives with Parent A for 3 days and then with parent B for 4 days. The following week the time is reversed. Similarly, a 2-5-5-2 schedule would have the child splitting each week 2 days with one parent and 5 days with the other and then rotating the schedule each week. Whatever plan you choose, consider implementing it for a trial period to see if it meets the needs of all involved.

The goal of crafting a parenting plan that works for older children is to find an arrangement that works for everyone. Regardless of the custody provisions committed to paper, the best parenting often results when the parenting plan never becomes an issue. Parenting plans become important when parents can't communicate and are always in conflict. When there is a dispute about where a child should be, the black and white provisions on paper usually provide the solution.

Cooperative, supportive parents who consistently put the needs of their children first will create workable custody and visitation arrangements. If parents are flexible, willing to compromise and can cooperatively deviate from plan provisions to meet the needs and schedule of the child or the other parent, the paper plan becomes a non-issue. The result is less stress for all parties while also providing a positive example of co-parenting for the child. If have any questions concerning child custody, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at 201-845-7400 for a consultation.

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