Q: My 16-year-old daughter ran away to her father’s house after being reprimanded for getting a tattoo without my permission. He allowed her to move in with him and his live-in girlfriend, her 15-year-old son and the 3-year-old child they had together. After a night of leaving the 16- and 15-year-olds home to babysit, I now have a month-old grandchild. At birth, my daughter was 17 and the father was 16. We are in the midst of a custody battle over the baby. Father wants equal custody! What can we do? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: Good ex-etiquette is an outline for good behavior after a break-up. It usually involves ways to better communicate and problem-solve. This is particularly important when there are children involved and the goal is to keep arguments to a minimum by using the children’s best interest as the basis on which to make decisions. In the case you describe, we have children having babies and when that happens, their parents often get involved. Although one would hope that the introduction of adults might straighten things out, it often makes communication more difficult. Your households were already broken into factions – mom against dad. Now you have more players, more complicated relationships, and a little baby who is biologically related to all of you.
The rules of good ex-etiquette can be a guide here even though things are so complicated. Rule No. 1, Put the children first, means this little baby can’t make decisions for herself and rather than fight over where she should live, consider the more people to love her, the better. Both parents – and grandparents – have a right to be in this child’s life and if the parents have decided to raise her, a custody plan that offers time with both parents is the most logical choice. The truth is, it’s doubtful that your children will be able to be full-time parents at the beginning. The father and mother are in high school and hopefully will continue in school. As ridiculous as it may seem right now – you will all need each other’s help. Rather than point fingers and fight about things that have already happened, the parents need to figure out how they are going to raise this baby – and it sounds as if the grandparents have agreed to help. Relying on ex-etiquette rule No. 9, “Respect each other’s turf,” and rule No. 10, “Compromise whenever possible,” are both good starting points – as well as rule No. 7, “Use empathy when problem solving,” and rules 5 and 6, “Don’t be spiteful” and “Don’t hold grudges.” (More information about the practical application of the rules of good ex-etiquette can be found on the Bonus Families website, www.bonusfamilies.com key word: ten rules.)
Finally, to prevent things like this, there have to be strong house rules in place when unrelated teenagers live under the same roof – and it’s your responsibility not to put them in the position where they could make questionable choices. Think of checks and balances that might help, like if the parents go out for dinner or a movie, enlist a close neighbor to casually stop over to check on things. If it means you go out when the kids are at the other parent’s home or at a friend’s house for the night, then that’s what you do. And, remember to have a family conversation when first moving in together and make sure everyone knows what is expected of them – and what the consequences will be if the rules are broken.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at: