Ex-etiquette: Do your best to be flexible with long-distance co-parenting

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Q. My ex and I broke up three years ago. We have two boys, ages 15 and 12. Their mother went to live with family in Idaho after we broke up. The children stayed with me in Montana. They visit their mother during breaks and in the summer. Our oldest is telling me that this year he does not want to spend the entire summer in Idaho. He is interested in sports, he has a girlfriend, and he simply does not want to spend that much time away. His brother hears him complain and also wants the time reduced. His mother thinks it’s my fault. I say nothing against her. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. I wish I could say that your situation is unique, but it’s not.

I bet this isn’t the first time your oldest balked at being away for the entire summer. When kids hit middle school, friends and extracurriculars become the biggest influence, and as much as parents want to remain the center of their world, it just doesn’t happen.

I’m sure your boys want to see their mother, but they want to be with their friends, too, and since their friends are in Montana, they are trying to juggle their allegiance to their mother and their life with you. And now there’s a girlfriend? Oh my.

In situations like this, it’s also not uncommon for the noncustodial parent to think the custodial parent is alienating the kids on purpose. Rarely do they say, “Oh, OK, it’s because he’s 15 and wants to be with his girlfriend.” More, it’s “What are you saying about me? You are turning my baby against me!”

Although you may not be undermining mom on purpose, some responses could cause problems.

When you say things like, “I understand, but try to make the best of it. You’ll be home soon,” you’ve undermined mom. You implied that her house was not home to the kids, and you can identify with what a pain it is to have to visit. Although the kids don’t live there full time, it’s important that they feel “at home” when they’re there.

The noncustodial parent must not be presented as less important. So a response like, “I know you’ll miss your girlfriend, but this is your time with your mom and I’m sure she has lots of great things planned,” is a good start.

Mom must listen to the kids’ feelings and make them feel heard. The kids will resent the long-distance parent if they think their concerns are not being considered. That’s when you hear, “I don’t want to go.”

Your 12-year-old wanting the same schedule as his older brother is also quite predictable. When children have different schedules, the perception is often that the difference is “unfair.”

The best advice I can give you as long-distance co-parents is do your best to be flexible. Don’t take the kids’ requests personally; they are just being honest. Considering the age of the boys, flexibility might mean more frequent, shorter visits. Perhaps mom can visit the boys in Montana as well.

Don’t fight each other. Your kids need both parents. Look for solutions together — in your children’s names. That’s good ex-etiquette.