Divorce or separation annually buffets and bruises more than one million children in the United States, so many parents turn to interventions such as family mediation to mitigate the damage. Family mediation has been widely promoted as a better alternative to litigation.
Child Focused (CF) and Child Informed (CI) mediation routines appear to improve the benefits of mediation, but CI intervention appears to offer the most positive mediation outcomes, according a 2013 article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law by five professors at Indiana University in Bloomington.
While some family dispute resolution practitioners adopt a CF approach in every mediation because they want to understand the unique needs of the children and encourage parents to stay focused on reaching agreements in the “best interests of the children,” in recent years practitioners have shifted from CF practice to CI regimes. CI provides a mechanism for children to have a voice in the mediation process, without needing to be present in the room and without having to make any decisions.
In Australia Dr. Jennifer McIntosh is a leading advocate of the CI practice. Dr. McIntosh describes the process as one where parents, with assistance, “focus clearly on their children’s needs amidst the emotional debris of the ongoing disputes.”
CI practice involves a child consultant spending time with the children in a separate session outside of the mediation. If more than one child is involved, the children can be seen together initially and then separately if they wish. This session is a confidential and supportive session, with a consultant or counselor or child practitioner.
In a CI regime, each child, who must be of school age, speaks with the child consultant independently and in neutral environment. The child consultant spends time drawing, playing and talking with the child who is never in a position of being pressured to answer any given question or to answer a question in a particular way. The child is not asked to make decisions or to experience the feeling of having to choose between his or her parents. He or she talks about and/or shows “what it’s like to be me, in my family, at this point in time.” Special care is taken to provide an environment that feels safe and welcoming.
The child shares his or her thoughts and feelings about the separation and living arrangements. Children generally don’t want to hurt one or both parents by sharing how they really feel, so the presence of a child consultant provides the space for them to speak openly. The child consultant reports back the child’s experience of the separation and conflict, and the child’s expressed wishes and unspoken developmental needs. The child specialist may even “shadow” the child as the youngster moves through some of his or her daily activities and interactions with parents and others. This permits useful empirical information to be gathered so that discussions about his or her best interests are tied to the child’s reality as opposed to the picture that one or both parents sometimes assume to be true. A fair report of the child’s journey enhances outcomes and softens parental reactivity and gives perspective that otherwise may be absent. The child consultant respects any concerns that the children have about reporting back sensitive matters.
The consultant gives the parents feedback, and the parents make informed decisions about parenting arrangements, communication styles, schooling and a whole range of other issues that may be brought to the table. In this regime, parents can stand down from their battle stations to listen and learn what they need to know to make informed decisions about parenting and co-parenting. The entire process shifts in productive and positive ways.
Children add a heightened level of emotional complexity to a separation or divorce. With CI in place, parents can make a transition from warring couples about their children’s future to two people who are able to be amicable for the sake of their children. The more they practice the easier, it becomes. In essence they fake it until they make it.
CI mediation can support parents’ efforts to actively consider the unique needs of each of their children, and it can facilitate a parenting agreement that preserves significant relationships and supports children’s psychological adjustment to the separation. Parents exit the dispute resolution forum on higher rather than diminished ground.
Parent can broach CI mediation with their children by explaining that Mom and Dad have been seeing a mediator to help make some decisions about the future, such as schooling, living arrangements and finances. Parents explain that they have chosen this path because each wants the best for the children and that working with the mediator helps make the best possible decisions for everyone in the family.
The parent can explain that when they talk with the child consultant they can let the consultant know if there is anything they are talking about that they want to be kept private. They can just enjoy playing games and chatting with the child consultant about whatever they are thinking.
This type of mediation ensures that the children really are a focal point for conflict resolution strategies. Parents accurately identify and focus upon kids needs, at what is also for them this most difficult of times, by maintaining their indirect presence in the mediation room. It allows the parties to actually test workable co-parenting solutions, and so to modify their conduct accordingly.
Separating couples with children should seek the assistance of a mediator because research shows the repercussions of ongoing conflict can sometimes last a lifetime, so resolving the situation as peacefully and quickly as possible is so important.