Moody; impulsive; reckless; brash; exasperating. No, I am not describing Charlie Sheen circa 2011.  I am talking about teenagers.

Indeed, Aristotle described these elusive creatures as “heated by nature as drunken men by wine” – and that’s on a normal day.  But rest assured Mom and Dad – your teenager is not trying make your life miserable (although it may seem that way).  There is a likely neurological cause to your budding adolescent’s mood swings and overall maddening behavior.

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As noted by Beatriz Luna, a University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry, who uses neuroimaging to study the teen brain, compared with adults, teens tend to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan and stay focused.  As a result, a teenager’s quixotic characteristics are only heightened during periods of high stress, fatigue or other challenges.

Of course, to the extent that stress essentially add fuel to the teenager’s already high-burning fire, this poses special problems in a divorce when emotions run high, and even adults experience problems staying rational and balanced.

New Jersey, while recognizing the special characteristics of teenagers, does not offer very specific guidance on the issue of teenage custody. Rather, the good ol’ “best interests” standard continues to apply well past the start of adolescence.   However, in its weighing of the custody factors, if a child is of an age and capacity to form an intelligent preference as to custody, the court will consider the wishes of the child.  Still, the child’s preference is by no means conclusive.

In the consideration of whether to award child support, the Court recognizes, however, it is improper to immediately request a modification of support based upon a teenager’s change in custody.

The Appellate Division has recognized that a child’s change of residence from a custodial to a non-custodial parent is seldom permanent at the time of its inception.  As a general proposition, therefore “some time must elapse before the child can decide whether the new living arrangement really will be more to his or her liking and before the custodial parent can decide whether to accept the change on a permanent basis”.  Ohloff v. Ohloff.  The Court cautioned that during this transitional period, different perceptions of the permanency of such new living arrangements may require that the relative financial obligations of the parties not be altered.

As a result, there is no clear answer in New Jersey as to what extent a child’s preferences are considered in a custody dispute involving a teenager.  But that doesn’t mean you are powerless to help your teenager during this very difficult time.

Here are a few tips to help you do that:

1.         Keep your teen’s need for peer interaction in mind The teen brain is attuned to oxytocin, which (among other things) makes social connections in particular more rewarding.  Teens prefer the company of those their own age.  It’s nothing personal.  Recognizing that a teenager’s friends are probably more important than either you or your spouse may avoid the “it’s not fair” or the “you don’t understand me” unpleasantries of everyday life when you are going through a divorce with a teenage child in the mix.

2.         Create consistent rules between houses Risk taking peaks during adolescence.  In fact, most long term drug and alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, so it is important to use your tools to avoid that as best you can.  Psychologist, JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, indicates structure and a clear definition of right and wrong that is uniform between houses can help.  Otherwise, the teen is likely to rebel against the stricter parent in favor of the parent whose house offers little structure, no curfew, or more freedom generally.

3.         …But don’t be too suffocating Studies suggest that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.  Strike a balance.  Your teenager will thank you later.

4.         Present a united front – Teenagers can sniff out and rapidly capitalize dissention among the ranks.  A statement to the teen that neither Mom nor Dad will tolerate her shenanigans will send a clear message that there is no room for manipulation of the already volatile situation.

5.         Do not encourage your teen to take sides – They may seem like adults capable of handling the information like “Dad ran off with the housekeeper”, “Mom can’t manage money” or “You’re better off here with me”, but at the end of the day, they are still children.  Placing them in the middle of the situation will cause them to absorb the conflict between you and your spouse.  Generally, a bad idea.

6.         Do not hesitate to get professional help when it is necessary – Many therapists specialize in working with divorced parents and teens to help them co-parent and avoid common mistakes.  If you cannot handle the situation with your teenager on your own, there is no shame in seeking professional help.

But, after all that, here is the good news.  New research about the teenage brain conducted by B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College, suggests that teenagers are incredibly adaptive creatures.  With the right guidance, your moody, sometimes impossible teen may end up able to appreciate that her parents may be able to help her through this tumultuous time.

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Baer, Eliana T.Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

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