Judges and custody evaluators must carefully explore a teenager’s underlying motives to properly gauge how much weight their parental preference should be given. 

By Gerald Cooke, Psychologist

There are a number of changes that mark puberty and the adolescent years. The most obvious are biological and hormonal. These changes may directly impact parent-child relationships due to enhanced irritability and negative emotionality on the part of the adolescent (Buchanan et. al. 1992). These changes may lead to increases in conflict and/or to emotional distance in parent-child relationships. The onset of puberty has also been shown to lead to changes in expectations of parents, who are more likely to “put the brakes on” due to anticipatory fears of rebelliousness and conflict (Barber, 2002).

There are also cognitive changes that occur at adolescence.  There is a shift in problem solving in terms of seeing and evaluating alternatives, and increased questioning of parental control (Collins, 1990). There are also emotional and self-definitional changes in the meaning assigned to new perceptions of self and others, sometimes resulting in increases in depressive affect. Peer relationships also change and become more important with children relying more heavily on the influence of peers, though parents retain primary influence over major decision making.

Even when a family is intact, different parents may respond differently to these changes. If there has been separation and divorce the differences in how each parent reacts to those changes may strongly influence how the child perceives that parent which, in turn, may influence the child’s expressed preference for the amount of time to be spent with each parent. There are a number of factors in parenting that are particularly relevant to this process.

Parenting Style

Over the years there have been a number of classification systems developed to classify parenting style. The following four categories have been defined based on the continua of demandingness and responsiveness of parents:

1.   Authoritarian-Autocratic involves high demandingness and low responsiveness: obedience to rules is expected, there is little warmth or give and take between the parent and the child, and physical punishment is more likely;

2.   Indulgent-Permissive involves low demandingness and high responsiveness: these parents avoid regulating the children, impose few rules, and tolerate a wide range of behavior;

3.   Indifferent-Uninvolved involves low demandingness and low responsiveness: the parent devotes little time to parenting or rule enforcement;

4.   Authoritative-Reciprocal involves high demandingness and high responsiveness: These parents are responsive to the demands of their children but expect their children to be responsive to their demands as well. They encourage verbal give and take, but they enforce rules, when necessary, accompanied by explanations and rationales. They encourage autonomy and independence.

A great deal of research has been conducted to try to determine how these various styles affect adolescents’ behavior and adjustment. The research findings are fairly consistent:  Children of authoritative parents are better adjusted, and also are more likely to be in peer groups that endorse both parental and peer values.

To some extent the above categorization is oversimplified, and many parents do not fit clearly into one category or another. Without forming specific categories there are other dimensions that have been studied in terms of the effects on the child. These include strictness, control, consistency of discipline, democracy (acknowledging the child’s perspective), monitoring, supervision, involvement, warmth, responsiveness, acceptance, information provision, skill development, constraining versus encouragement of autonomy, and connections of family members. Overall, adolescents are better adjusted when parents:

1.   Set clear standards for behavior;

2.   Enforce rules in a manner that is not overly punitive;

3.   Provide consistent discipline;

4.   Explain rules and consequences;

5.   Permit verbal give and take;

6.   Are involved in the child’s life and monitor whereabouts without being overprotective;

7.   Provide a warm, responsive, cohesive family environment;

8.   Provide information and aid in skill development and encourage differentiation.

However, parents and children often have different perceptions, particularly around issues of autonomy and control.  This almost inevitably leads to some level of parent-adolescent conflict. For example, a parent checking on the whereabouts of their adolescent in a way that appears appropriate to the parent may make the adolescent feel like they are being treated like a baby, not given credit for good judgment, or not given sufficient autonomy and freedom. These feelings are particularly likely to emerge when the adolescent compares their parent to the parents of friends who may have fewer rules and/or monitor less or not at all.

Weighing Child Preferences

This provides the context for consideration of how custody evaluators and Courts should weigh the preferences of adolescents in regard to the time they wish to spend with each parent. The Pennsylvania Statute (P.L. 1106, No. 112, Chapter 53, Modified in 2010) is similar to those of other states, and contains the following language: “The well-reasoned preference of the child based on the child’s maturity and judgment” and “In making an Order for custody or partial custody the Court shall consider the preference of the child… Although the expressed wishes of the child are not controlling in custody cases, they do constitute an important factor that must be carefully considered… Though child’s preference must be based on good reasons, and the child’s maturity and intelligence must be considered.”

While there is no solid age guideline contained in the Statute, one often hears from those involved in the Family Court System that by age 13 most Courts will give a great deal of weight to a child’s preference.

One example to illustrate this point is where a 14-year-old girl expressed strong interest to live with her mother and have minimal visitation with her father. She cited several verbal conflicts in which her father lost his temper and said hurtful things, and described a much warmer relationship with her mother. While her father did occasionally lose his temper, the mother’s background cast doubt on whether this was a well-reasoned preference. The mother did not adequately monitor her child’s school performance and extracurricular functions. She believed her daughter’s claim of being an A-B student, which the father contested. This examiner found the child was a C student and her school performance was deteriorating. This was the cause of many conflicts between the daughter and father, who wanted to impose limits on her social life until her grades improved. What emerged was a case where the fact the daughter did not want parental rules or consequences imposed was the primary reason she preferred her mother’s house. While the father slightly resembled the Authoritarian-Autocratic parenting style, the mother clearly fit into the Indifferent-Uninvolved category. It was this examiner’s opinion that if the situation was not remedied, she was headed for further academic deterioration.

However, given the changes within the adolescent and within the adolescent-parent relationship discussed earlier, and based on hundreds of custody evaluations involving adolescents, the present author would urge extreme caution when it comes to weighing the preference of an adolescent. There is no clear definition of terms such as “well-reasoned,” “maturity,” “judgment,” and “intelligence,” in the custody context.  Complicating the situation is that adolescents may have learned from either or both parents, from peers whose parents are divorced, from TV, from the internet, etc. what sorts of reasons evaluators and judges want to hear. Thus, they may be manipulative when they provide a “well-reasoned preference” to the evaluator or Court when, in fact, that is not at all their genuine reason for the preference.

In summary, just because a teenager has reached a certain age does not mean that they have a well-reasoned preference based on maturity, good judgment, or that the child themselves know what is in their best interest. Most adolescents have some degree of the characteristics and issues discussed at the outset.  This can lead to them having underlying agendas which may interact with each parent’s parenting style. Thus, custody evaluators and judges must carefully explore the reasons and motivations that underlie a teenager’s stated preference.

* This article has been condensed  by Family Lawyer Magazine with permission from the author.

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Dr. Gerald Cooke specializes in Forensic Psychology and is Board Certified in that and in Forensic Neuropsychology.  He has numerous publications in professional journals and books.  He has held a number of past teaching positions including Villanova University Law School. Dr. Cooke’s private practice is limited to forensic psychology and includes evaluations in child custody, criminal and personal injury cases, as well as consultation with police departments.
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Bibliography

1.   Barber, Brian (editor) (2002) Intrusive Parenting:  How Psychological Control Affects Children and Adolescents, Washington D.C., American Psychological Association;

2.   Buchannan, C.M., Ecles, J.S., and Becher, J.B. (1992) Are Adolescents the Victims of Raging Hormones: Evidence for Activational Effects of Hormones on Moods and Behaviors in Adolescents, Psychological Bulletin, 111, 62-107;

3.   Collins, W.A. (1990) Parent-Child Relationships in the Transition to Adolescence: Continuity and Change in Interaction, Affect, and Cognition in R. Montenyor, G. Adams, and T. Gullote (eds.) Advances in Adolescent Development, Volume II, Beverly Hills, CA, Sage, 85-106;

4.   Holmbeck, G.N., Paikoff, R.L., and Brooks-Gunn, J. (1995) Parenting Adolescents, in MH Bornstein (ed.) Handbook of Parenting, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Volume I, page 91-118;

5.   Kastner, L.S., and Wyatt, J. (2009) Getting to Calm: Cool Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens, Seattle, WA, Parent Map;

6.   Klahold v. Klahold, 36 Pa. D and C. No. 4 TH 470 (Burks County, 1996);

7.   McMillen v. McMillen, 602 A 2d, 845 (Pa. 1992).