The Right to Choose Custody and the Teenage Brain
Updated: Feb 23
The domestic relations statutes, in most U.S. states, include the child's voice in the custody decision making process. The age limit can range from "a mature, well-informed child" to eighteen. Nonetheless, most legislators agree children can offer valuable information about either parents' home. Details that may help a judge base his/her decision. I don't think anyone would argue children, of appropriate age, can contribute meaningfully to the process.
The Arizona Law Review assessed the a child's role in custody disputes. Their findings indicate a child of twelve, and older, has capacity to assess their parent’s character with some objectivity and give a reliable testimony. The report further concludes, tweens and teens still have difficulty with impulse control, judgement, and the ability to resist coercion(i). This evidence should be considered by lawmakers in states with more lenient age guidelines.
New Mexico, Georgia, and Illinois allow fourteen-year-olds to have sole election of their primary custodian. In Indiana, a child as young as eleven can have significant input in the process. If you're eleven-years-old and living in Georgia, you can elect your custodian without objection, as long as an older sibling is already present in that household.(ii) While all these state mandates indicate the judge should apply discretion, history shows it’s rare the child’s election is overturned. Even in cases where proven where abuse, neglect and/or substance abuse is evident. This is more than just painting a picture for the judge, this is a child making a legal decision that impacts their livelihood far beyond their comprehension. These states are literally making the child be the tie breaker in their parents' divorce.
The neuropsychological evidence is clear this 11-14 age group is a prime target for an alienating parent to steer the child towards his/her exclusive agenda. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports, the frontal cortex of our brains does not develop fully until we reach our mid-twenties. This is the command center for reasoning and skilled decision making. Additionally, it controls a person’s ability to have coordinated thoughts and consider consequences beyond our behavior ii . Linda Burgess Chamberlin states, “Teens lack all the hardware in their brains to think like an adult.”(iii)
I’m not sure about you, but my eleven-year old’s last big decision was to purchase a plastic chair from Justice. Despite my guidance around how she should better allocate her Christmas money, she elected to make the purchase anyways. I had ultimate decision-making authority, but I allowed the transaction despite my knowledge of furniture durability and the longevity of plastic. Within two weeks, the pink, shiny chair leaned to one side. My daughter willingly overlooked the functionality of her beloved accent piece to prove my parental oversight was inaccurate. Within three weeks, it had dwindled into a puddle of synthetic goo in the corner of her room. The included patch kit revived it for a few additional days, but soon it became part of our weekly trash removal service; and she was out forty bucks.
A child’s right to be heard is valid, however the lenient laws in New Mexico, Illinois, Georgia, and Indiana border on child neglect. A young teen’s perception should not be the deciding factor for custody arrangements.
I encourage you to follow the imbedded links and review the domestic relations statutes in your state. Familiarize yourself with the child's role in divorce and custody litigation. If it's anything less than what scientific evidence supports as a a reasonable age, engage your civic leaders and demand change.