Consulting Children of Separating Parents in Mediation

Consulting Children of Separating Parents in Mediation

Many of our discussions in Family Mediation are about arrangements for children. At Progressive Mediation we feel that as children grow older their views need to be increasingly taken into account in these discussions. Sometimes parents ask their children directly what they want to happen.

However for many reasons children can sometimes find it very difficult to tell one or other parent how they really feel. In an effort not to upset either parent they can sometimes tell each one what they think they want to hear, which in turn makes it harder for parents to come up with arrangements which are going to work for their children.

Sometime parents are so caught up in their dispute, their anger at their ex partner and their view of their ‘rights’ in regard to their children, that they lose focus on their child, or become unable to hear what their child really wants and needs.

Whenever this happens in the mediation room we try to bring the child back in, by naming them, and by focusing on what is in the child’s best interest. Sometimes in order to really focus parents’ mind on what their children are saying we feel it is helpful to consult them directly.

Direct Consultation

In these circumstances, and with both parents’ go ahead at Progressive Mediation we offer direct consultation with children.

When asked children overwhelmingly opt to be consulted about their future following the divorce of their parents. A Council of Europe survey in 2010 showed that 2400 of 2600 children replied that they wanted to be heard directly.

Understandably many parents are very reluctant to draw their children into the mediation process. They worry that the process will feel strange or scary, or that their child will feel pressured into siding with one parent of the other.

It is important to understand that direct consultation with children does not mean that we are asking them to come up with solutions, to side with one parent, or to chose where they want to live. The process of child consultation involves asking them about their response to the whole situation and feeding this back to their parents so that the child’s views and needs remain central to the discussion.

Child Inclusive Mediation

Research from Australia has shown that ‘child-inclusive’mediation – where children are seen separately and their wishes fed back to their parents can lead to significantly better outcomes than more traditional child-focused mediation. The study showed that children who took part showed more progress in overcoming anxiety and clingy behavior. Both parents become more emotionally available to their children and in 43% of cases parents said ‘hearing from my kids was the thing that helped the most.’

Why do it?

  • It brings children back into the center of the process
  • It helps parents understand the impact of their separation on their children
  • It helps minimize conflict between parents
  • It helps communication between parents
  • It increases understanding of parent’s future role

How does it work?

Depending on the age of your child or children, and depending what they feel most comfortable with we can meet them at our home, or somewhere they feel at ease. Importantly we meet them without either parent present.

We wouldn’t usually see children under 7 as it is likely to be difficult for them to understand and express mixed emotions. We reassure the children that our conversation with them will be treated in confidence. We will only pass on to their parents what they are happy for us to pass on, and as far as possible we will avoid upsetting or distressing their parents. We are not asking them to choose, or to resolve their parents conflict for them.

We may talk through with the child their experience of their parents’ separation, ask them how current arrangements work for them, and what they feel about any proposed changes. We would try and get them to express how they see things and what they would like to happen, and we ask them to comment on the situation as they see it.

We will explore for them how their ideal contact with separated parents will work, and discuss any other issues where their input on the disagreements between their parents may be relevant. We make the process as nonthreatening and easy as possible. And we ensure that the child feels truly listened to.

We will then feedback the conversation to both parents together, providing a written summary of what they children have asked us to report to them.

Direct Consultation Example

To give an example I saw two sisters who said they were upset when their parents argued at handover. Their Mum had said she thought it was the contact that was distressing them, their Dad said they were upset because they did not have enough contact. In fact it was their parent’s conflict which  was upsetting them and we discussed in the feedback what they could both do to make the handover less traumatic, by trying to put their feelings about each other aside so they could talk to each other in a civilized way.

Research shows that children who take a more active role in divorce proceeding are more likely to have positive feelings towards the end result.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2001.

In a recent Legal Services Commission pilot 27 children were consulted directly in cases which affected them. In 82% of cases parents took on board what their children said, conflict was reduced and positive communication between parents about their children was increased. The response to the children to be consulted was also very positive.

Talking to someone outside the family is important, to give their opinion and just to help’

‘Children should get a say in things, they shouldn’t be left out. I mean it’s their life as well.’

‘I needed someone to talk to by myself’

In March 2015 the Dispute Resolution Advisory Group published a report   ‘The Voice of the Child’ calling for child participation to become standared in cases which affect them.

httpss://www.gov.uk/government/publications/voice-of-the-child-government-response-to-dispute-resolution-advisory-group-report

The report was positively welcomed by Simon Hughes the then Family Justice Minister and by his successor Caroline Dinenage. However for direct   child consultation to become the norm rather than the exception, will require a significant cultural change, both in parents and in many mediators.

If you have any question about child consultation and how we do it at Progressive Mediation please do not hesitate to get in touch.