Q: My 14-year-old daughter recently told me she no longer wants to visit her mother. She sees her every other week. Mother was diagnosed bipolar disorder two years ago, did not agree with the diagnosis, and refuses to take medication. According to my daughter, her mother is very unpredictable and picks fights with her. Last visit mother sat on our daughter when an argument got heated and while trying to get away, my daughter hit her mother in the face. As a result, her mother filed for a temporary restraining order. Mother still wants to see our daughter, but our daughter says, "No way!" What do I do? I'm so worried. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: Let's take a look what might be going on with mom. It's not uncommon for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder to not want to take medication. Those I have counseled have expressed that they simply don't want to take medication for the rest of their life. But, also, it takes so long to zero in on the right dose, they often lose patience. Once the right dosage has been found and they start to feel better, they decide to stop taking the medication. Stop taking medication that affects your brain chemistry and there's usually some sort of fallout. In this case, possibly HUGE mood swings, unpredictability, anger, sometimes delusions, mania, depression – it's a lot. So, they get back on meds, only to start the cycle again.
Meanwhile you have your 14-year-old daughter watching all this. She's got her own issues – puberty, which in itself can be confusing, her parents breakup, two different homes and all that goes along with it – Mom's unpredictable and Dad's worried all the time.
Normally, I would say just because a child says he or she doesn't want to go to the other parent's home doesn't mean you stop visitation. Sometimes that request is made just because the child is bored and would rather be with his or her friends. But, in this case, when parent/child interaction has become physical and the adult is incapable of defusing the situation, it is time to get professionals involved – and while the professionals (therapists for all and psychiatrist for Mom to access if her past diagnosis is correct) access the situation, taking a break is a good choice. I say this to protect both your daughter and her mother. Restraining orders between parent and child are no joke. If someone has resorted to restraining orders they are either afraid for their life or making a statement – both of which need to be explored immediately.
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All that said, in some states a child of 14 may choose where they want to live. In the state of California where I practice, the law states that a child of 14 can ask to be heard by a mediator or judge. That doesn't mean that their wish will be granted, but it does mean that what they say will be taken seriously when custody is being decided – always in the best interest of the child. That's good ex-etiquette.
(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. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at email@example.com.)