I feel that we are not doing justice in mediation to children going through their parent’s divorce, without at least meeting them, whether or not they wish to fully participate in voicing their wishes. Just seeing who they are, understanding their temperaments, and seeing the interactions between the children and their parents, is invaluable in the process of mediation.
Typically, by the time children are nine years of age and older, they are more than delighted to come and actually share their feelings, opinions and wishes moving forward. They also ask, directly or indirectly for help in their sadness and confusion. At this juncture, I can help them process the transformation that is happening by helping them articulate and vent their fears, losses, and preferences for particular wants and needs.
Many of the teens that have come here have told me they would consider mediation as a profession for them when they grow up. They felt heard, understood and respected. They know that the parents ultimately make many of the decisions, but as the teens get older, they appreciate that their voices were considered very important and that the parents were encouraged to listen openly and respectfully.
Does involving children have a downside? Yes, and that is why there has been debate about including them in the process.
For example, if parents use children as the deciding vote or to align them with one of them, it leaves children in a no-win situation. It puts much too much pressure on children to be elevated to a position of decision-making that they do not want nor should have, especially if the “fallout” to that child will be one of betrayal, grave disappointment or intensified loyalty binds.
Children should never be forced to come to mediation. As with the parents, the choice to participate should be voluntary.
If they choose, children should be allowed to voice what their concerns and preferences are in an emotionally safe environment, with the understanding that the outcomes arrived at through an agreed arrangement are ones where no one gets everything they want- parents or children. Rather it is a careful consideration of what is important to everyone, so all of these considerations can be part of the plan.
Parents who do consent to bring their children into the process do so because they truly feel that it is cathartic for the children on many levels. Also much can be understood about where their children are at emotionally and spiritually in their grief process. If their suggestions are taken seriously because they are reasonable ones, this will make them much more able to adapt to this new normal in their lives.
Recently a university student in the United States sought me out as one of the few mediators, both in the United States and Canada, according to her, who actually did include children in mediations on a very regular basis.
She asked if she could come to meet me and better understand my process specifically for children, as she was writing her thesis on child-inclusive mediations.
I was delighted to meet with her and was especially interested in what she had found among divorce professionals in both the United States and Canada regarding actually having the children participate in mediation.
She had communicated to me that many professionals did not see the benefits of including children or had not thought that this may be even beneficial.
Obviously there needs to be a skilled approach especially where children and parents are not sure what the outcomes will be. Therefore, it must be made abundantly clear to both parents and children what the parameters are for including children, so the children do not in any way feel pressured or needing to align with either parent. Also, only age-appropriate topics should be open to children to hear in mediation and this must be very clear before inviting children into the mediation. Children do not need to hear intimate adult details or financial issues being discussed.
There have been times in my experiences, where the children are very nervous about upsetting an aggressive parent. For example, if that parent has continually been telling them that they need to spend more time with them and why, including giving them negative messages about their other parent, then that child or teen will tell me that they do not wish to offer an opinion for fear of retribution or rejection from that parent. In that case, I would tell the child/teen that they should never feel they are put in a position to choose or face these fearful consequences. If that is the scenario, I would tell them that they can choose not to have an opinion or not participate at all. This is helpful for me in working with the parents as I can impress upon them that the best interests of the children puts a tremendous amount of emphasis on not putting children in the middle or intensifying the loyalty bind that is already so painful for these children to manage.
Sometimes it is a graduated process where I may meet the child/teen and get to know them first. As time goes on, it may be very effective to have that child/teen only come with one parent or both parents, depending on what the scenario is.
Many times, a child and especially a teen has had some long-standing frustrations with one or both parents and the separation has been the catalyst where the teen decides that because they have not liked a parent’s rules or behaviours towards them in the past, now through separation, it is ripe to say that they choose to live with the parent who may be fairer, easier or the “Disney Parent”.
This is where the mediation can bring together each parent, perhaps separately or together with the child to work through these parenting issues that were present before the separation that need amending because they are not working in the child’s best interests. There has to be openness on the part of the parents to be able to receive some difficult information and participate in some difficult conversations with their child/teen.
Bringing children into mediation is feared by many parents because of course they do not wish to feel evaluated by their children and this is fair. It is also feared because some parents worry their children will tell the mediator about parenting practices that are not child-focused.
I have seen many cases, especially with teens, where the parent was not aware that their parenting has become outdated. That is, they have been so consumed with a marital breakdown, perhaps for years, that they did not recognize their communications and rules have actually caused much frustration and disrespect with their children. Here in mediation, parent education is a very important component in determining access including having teens feel good about whatever access arrangement is determined.
If teens and parents air their grievances here in mediation regarding parenting challenges, many times the teens will correctly and consistently be telling me that they are treated as if they were still young children, being expected to comply with time-outs, and other consequences that are no longer appropriate. Instead both parents and teens need to take a more mature responsibility for actions and words. Once this has been understood, determining access schedules is now based on clearing the air, healing relationships and learning skills, to better communicate, negotiate and mutually respect living with each other. Then we do not get teens coming in saying that they “prefer” to live only with one parent.
The challenge is to appeal to the parent who wants to maintain an outdated or autocratic approach to parenting especially since teens do get a lot of say in determining where they live post-marriage. If parents are open to looking at their parenting skills without defensiveness or feeling it is a competition with their co-parent, we can actually help parents greatly improve their relationships with their children by including them here in mediation.
Sometimes parents and children/teens all participate together but this is after the parents and I have had met. At times, where parents see the assertiveness and ease that children are authentically telling their parents that indeed they are more than fine with the two –home model, this is all the parents need to hear to have the reassurance that perhaps the children can manage going back and forth.
I have also had the experience many times where one parent comes to mediation with the child/teen and the other parent, to discuss moving outside the jurisdiction and to openly hear from the child/teen their feelings. This can be extremely useful because by the time a child is over nine years of age, their input here,
especially where dealing with this big change, can help parents really be child-focused. Sometimes, a parent who is hoping to move to another city or country assumes the child/teen will naturally want to come with them and spend more time with the other parent on holiday time. To their surprise, at times, the child or teen asserts usually that they wish to stay in their environment where they have been raised instead of starting all over, with the parent who is staying, even if they have not spent the majority of time with this parent. This usually results in the parent who is contemplating moving, to reconsider and stay until the child or teen is closer to leaving high school or going to university when they are the ones ready to make the natural change to the next level. And, this is because, through involving that child/teen, the parent comes to realize that the child or teen does crave consistency for as long as they can sustain it. Having this kind of discussion in mediation may avoid a painful litigious exercise.
For children to feel truly heard and validated is essential in helping them grieve the loss of their family as they knew it. Sometimes parents, until they are educated in grief, do not fully believe the extent to which children and teens do grieve. They also come to realize that children do not necessarily have the resources that the adults have to do so. Mediation provides a vehicle to do some of this grieving for the children, and especially in a practical non-threatening way since we deal with the practical aspects of sharing time and what really is important to the child here.
Another important reason I believe children should be included in mediation is because here is an opportunity to model and teach them strong communication skills which will be extremely useful for all areas of their lives going forward. If their parents were not divorcing and had not brought them into mediation, they and their parents may not have had this opportunity to learn strong and effective communication skills going forward.
Divorce for children is extremely challenging with consequences that last a lifetime for them. They want respect, help and support and if they can get it here, along with the skills to grieve and best maintain relationships with their parents, I believe this inclusion of them here in mediation is invaluable.
Lastly, I wanted to share an actual email I received this morning from a client, all names changed.
Jake (age 8): “How long have we been broken up for?”
Mom: “About a year. Has it been ok?”
Ryan (age 6): “Yeah. Like it doesn’t have to be a bad thing that you and Dad live in 2 houses, right?”
Mom: “No. If we do it right, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing at all. And Daddy and I are trying to do it pretty good. Do you have friends whose parents have broken up in your class?”
Mom: “Well, Jake, actually you do have friends whose parents have broken up, but sometimes kids don’t like to talk about it because they think it’s bad. But it’s ok if they don’t want to talk about it. But I talk about it to my friends all the time because it’s not bad for me and I’m not embarrassed about it. But also you should know that maybe sometimes parents don’t do it as well as Daddy and I have. Sometimes when parents break up, things can be really bad and the parents can be really mean to each other and yell and scream and say that the other parent is bad and stuff like that, and the kids feel really awful.”
Jake: “But you and Daddy don’t do that because you have Risa, right?”
Ryan: “Yeah, she’s helping you do it right.”
Michelle (age 3): “Risa is our friend, right?”
Mom, wrote me below this, “out of the mouths of babes…”