“My son wants to live with his Dad; what do I do?”
Suddenly the joint custody arrangement you shared with your ex-husband no longer meets your
child’s needs – at least in his mind – and he has made the decision that he’d like to live with his
father full time.
While to your son this may seem a logical request, to you, it signals the end of a relationship and
the closeness you once shared – and you may even be taken aback at the emotions you’re
feeling and unsure where to turn.
The reality is that we all change as we grow and develop, but while you may have noticed certain
developmental changes taking place in your son, this request from seemingly left-field, has the
potential to be particularly hurtful to you.
I’d like to share with you several critical strategies for coping with your son’s request and the
feelings that may arise for you, and for maintaining – indeed strengthening – the bond you share.
Strengthen the Bond You Share
In order to cope with your son’s wish to live with his father and this challenging situation, you
must take care of your own needs and desires while remaining calm and meeting those of your
son as well. Communication is key to learn what’s at the core of his request, as is being realistic
about your son’s developmental needs and the relationship you share with your son’s father.
Keep in mind that the mother/son bond is strong. Actor James Dean once commented on his
rebellious, troubled nature by saying, “My mother died on me when I was nine years old. What
does she expect me to do? Do It alone?”
And of course we’re confronted with daily reminders of the complexities of joint custody out of
Hollywood with entertainers like Charlie Sheen and Brooke Mueller, Pete Wentz and Ashlee
Simpson, Gabriel Aubry and Halle Barry, and of course one of the most famous couples Kevin
Federline and Brittney Spears, attempting to establish a “working” parental relationship with their
wives, while seeking custody of their sons.
While your circumstance may not play out in the headlines, it’s no less heartbreaking and
emotional. The bond between mother and son though, cannot be broken by a simple change of
address. This is an opportunity to strengthen, rather than diminish, your bond with your son.
Recognize Your Son’s Developmental Needs
Your son’s needs become more complex as he ages. Many of the needs he may be trying to
meet can be difficult and as women, we can only speculate as to the culture that a boy must
navigate when growing into a man.
During your time together, you’ve taught him certain things he must know to be a kind,
compassionate man as he matures, taking care with the small lessons that present themselves
daily: Opening doors for a lady, listening, taking others feelings into consideration – a myriad of
lessons only you can teach.
His father has the ability to teach him other skills necessary that we, as mothers, cannot– most
typically through modeling. Confidence, risk taking, how to treat women and develop respect for
his body are just several of the skills his father can impart. Bonding between father and son is as
critical to your son’s development as a man, as the bond the two of you share.
Having said this, it’s important to point out that it’s just this potential for modeling that keeps many
woman from recognizing any positive aspect of a relationship between father and son.
As one woman asked, “How can I protect my son from my husband’s “modeling”? Indeed, it’s
unnerving to even entertain the thought that a person with whom you have conflict or even
animosity towards, could be in any way a role model for your son.
In this case, it’s advisable to examine the relationship that you have with your ex-husband and
begin to separate that from his abilities as a father. There are certain aspects of his personality
that attracted you at one time. Perhaps these should be readdressed so you can form a more
non-emotional view and not allow the conflicts that may still be present to cloud the relationship
your son could build and enjoy with his father.
Uncover the Reason Behind the Request
A boy’s needs are different as they age and his request to live with his father may, in his mind,
meet those needs more readily than what you can provide him as a woman.
Children – even 6’2” adult looking children – live in the moment. They tend to feel, act, and think
in their own best interest; this is necessary developmentally to become their own person. This
though, carries its own hazards, such as hurting others, even unconsciously.
It’s important to consider the reason for your son’s request to live with his father and this takes
communication. So, what are the possible avenues to explore?
Perhaps it’s a surface type of desire like the almost vacation-like atmosphere of part-time living
that he may experience with his father currently.
The time frame that most fathers have custody of their kids is Saturday and Sunday, two days of
fun in anyone’s week! Once the reality of a Monday through Friday schedule along with school,
chores, and after-school work is experience, the novelty of being in a different environment may
begin to wear off.
Another important aspect of weekend custody is that everyone is on their “best behavior” – easily
accomplished when there is such limited contact. Behavior changes though, when contact is
more regular and prolonged with discipline and expectations becoming more of a factor.
So, perhaps it’s more freedom from “rules” your son is seeking, or perhaps the promise of the use
of a car, etc. Whatever the reason – try to listen.
And then there are the deeper needs he may be seeking: Perhaps he needs to establish a bond
with his father as he has with you. This is a good thing. Whatever conflicts and emotions that
may remain, or may still be in play with your ex-husband, your son has one father and in all
circumstances, a strong, loving relationships with both parents is the best situation for him.
Your Ultimate Goals
Taking your own feelings into consideration is just as important as those of your son and his
father. Spend some time to think about the following questions and consider reaching out to
friends, support groups, or a therapist to discuss the following:
Describe the best qualities of your son(s)
What are you most proud of as a mother?
What is your biggest concern/frustration/heart break with your son(s)?
How does your relationship with your son’s father affect your relationship with your son?
How is rearing a son(s) different than rearing a daughter(s)?
How have you learned to stay connected with your son(s)?
What advice would you give a mother with a younger son(s)?
Is it useful to talk to other mothers about your son(s)?
Your ultimate goal is much like that of every loving mother: A healthy, strong son who has a
loving relationship with both you and his father. While it’s an on ongoing challenge, it’s one
worthy of both parents.
Suggested Reading for Parents of Sons
Giving the Love that Heals, Harville Hendrix, PhD
The Roller Coaster Years, Charlene C. Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese
How to Say It to Boys, Richard Heyman, Ed.D
Real Boys, William Pollack, PhD
Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, Ann F. Caron, Ed.D.
Raising a Son, Don Elium and Jeanne Elium
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D.