In a recent custody case we litigated in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, a case in which the parties’ minor child is a smart, articulate, athletic and very talented 11-year-old boy, an excellent resource published by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (“AFCC”) called “Planning for Shared Parenting: A guide for Parents Living Apart” became a vital guide for the parties in formulating an effective parenting plan that both parties agreed is in their pre-teen’s best interests. Formulating pre-teen parenting plans can be quite challenging. This particular AFCC guide articulates a number of important issues that the parties to a custody case should consider. Probate and Family Court judges often refer to the resource, so it is also something that should be considered in anticipating a possible judgment after a full-blown trial. This advance knowledge certainly helps settle cases, and in turn, reduces the overall cost of litigation.
The AFCC guide refers to the period of “pre-teen years” when children are preparing for puberty and adolescence. During this stage, pre-teens express a desire to have greater control over their schedules. They seek independence, although they still need parental rules and structure. They are delving deeper into their social lives, and their interaction with their peers should be encouraged as it is essential for their proper development. They may express a preference to be with their friends over family, and to engage in their chosen extra-curricular activities no matter what, regardless of which parent takes them there or picks them up. Inevitably this often conflicts with a strict adherence to any particular parenting plan. As a result, one parent may feel slighted if his or her parenting time is reduced. Human nature is such that often the other parent is unreasonably blamed. Placing the child’s interests ahead of the parent’s, however, must be a primary goal of each parent under such circumstances, and in effective co-parenting relationships these issues usually will work themselves out.
Another noteworthy topic in discussing pre-teen parenting plans is the level of contact that a pre-teen may need with both parents, or with one parent while staying with the other. According to the AFCC guide, pre-teens should be given the opportunity and privacy to call the other parent. This frequently can be the source of anxiety and stress for the pre-teen and the parent with whom he or she is residing at any given moment. The child may need to reach out to the other parent who is not present, while the parent who is present is not the child’s focus. The parent with whom the child is residing at that moment, once again, may not be able to help feeling hurt because of the child’s expressed preference (or alignment) with the other parent. Yet it is the child’s needs that must first, not the parents’, and private communication between the child and the other parent must be permitted. Ultimately, the child will hopefully learn to appreciate that his or her needs are being met, it is as a result of appropriate actions taken by the parents, and that his or her parents are indeed placing individual needs aside for the child’s benefit.