Dear Alice and Emily,

We are a blended family of two boys and three girls. He came with a boy and a girl and I had two daughters and a son. We are two years into the whole thing. There is just one issue. His daughter wants to live with us full time. She is now sixteen years old and according to the courts, old enough to make her own decision. She has a lot of anger built up against her mom, but we aren’t eager to encourage her to make such a big break. How do we support her without causing an upset in our somewhat delicate co-parenting arrangements?

Nervous Nellie in Nebraska

Dear Nervous Nellie,

First take in a deep breath, and then exhale because the answer might be much simpler than you imagine. Your step-daughter, at the age of 16, is her own moral agent. I don’t mean that she is not a minor, subject to the court’s rulings and the laws of your state. But if the court says that she can make her own choice, then she can make her own choice. Here is the easy part. She needs to make her own choice without your or her father’s involvement.

Your only job is to offer emotional support and empathy.
Your only job is to offer emotional support and empathy. But essentially, this issue is between her and her mother. No one ought to intervene except to serve as a sounding board. Chances are she has really good reasons for wanting to live with you guys. They may not be what you expect, but give her the chance to articulate them clearly. And then leave the communicating of them between her and her mother.

With co-parenting arrangements, truces can feel pretty fragile. And yes, this may cause a real upset. After all, it will feel like rejection to her mother, even if the reasons are more practical than personal. The urge is to try to shield everyone from the emotional impact. But again, this isn’t your fight. The worst case scenario is that it becomes a conflict between mother, father, and child. In that case, it is the duty of Dad to protect his daughter’s choices and to ensure that she has the space in which to make them, regardless of anyone’ feelings.

Developmentally, it is really common for teenagers to want to live with their father. One of the most common conflicts in divorces is a teenager choosing, at a seemingly random time, to change up what has worked for years and choose Dad’s house over Mom’s. In reality, this is a common stage in growth in the life a teen. Fathers represent the outside world while mothers represent a more nurturing, but immature time in the life of a teen. Typically kids turn towards their father to learn how to negotiate that big world outside the home.

Individuation is a painful and years long process, but it is necessary to becoming an adult.

Individuation is a painful and years-long process, but it is necessary to becoming an adult.
Hopefully her mom is wise enough to understand this without causing any more stress to the difficulties of being a teenager. The best case is one in which everyone agrees that at sixteen, a person should have the opportunity to have a little more control over one’s life than at, say, age twelve.

We wish you the best of luck!

-Alice & Emily