Many services provide the facility for children to be included in the mediation process. Research indicates that at the time of separation children feel as though they no longer have a voice in the future structure of their family. They have anxieties about how the new arrangements are going to work and how it will impact upon their lives in terms of maintaining friendships, schooling, relationships with extended family group members, etc.
We offer children an opportunity to express their views and wishes about the issues affecting them post separation.
Parents are routinely encouraged to consider inviting their children to participate directly in the mediation process.
We believe that most children appreciate the opportunity to be heard directly.
Inviting children to participate is presented as the norm, not the exception.
Client literature, telephone information and the first meeting with a mediator all reflect NFM’s commitment to active child participation.
Parents are assured that:
- their children will not be asked to make choices or decisions
- we respect their parental authority
- children are seen only with the agreement of both parents
- we will discuss fully with them the process and purpose of a “listening meeting” before involving children
When are children involved?
Children can be invited to meet with the mediator
- at an early stage, to ensure that their issues are included in the parental agenda
- once options have been identified and explored, in order to hear their views and take them into account
- at the end, to communicate and explain proposed future arrangements and to “fine-tune” them in light of children’s response
- more than once
- for individual or family meeting
The stage that parents are at in negotiating their future arrangements is likely to be a key factor in deciding when to involve children.
With highly conflicted couples, or couples at very different stages in accepting the end of the marriage, early consultation with children is unlikely.
The mediator’s discussion with the parents about the purpose and process of involving children will guide decisions on timing.
Children and parents are told that this can be an opportunity for children to talk privately with the mediator. Parents will only be told what children wish them to hear (with the important exception to confidentiality in relation to risk of harm).
The lower age limit for children being involved depends on their parents’ view of their capacity to use and understand the opportunity
The mediator working with the couple may meet with the children alone, or may involve a co-worker.
Arrangements for when the children come; who brings them; where people wait; how feedback will be communicated to parents; etc. will all be addressed with parents as part of the preparation process.
Children are invited to attend but may choose not to.
This is a limited exercise. We believe it may help children and parents. It will not solve problems, but may assist communication at a difficult time.
Mediators are trained specifically to include children in this way and a major element of our core training focuses on bringing the children in to the process to ensure their needs are considered as paramount.
Children’s experiences of divorce
Separation and divorce are adult solutions to adult problems, but many children find themselves caught up in the resulting chaos. Even if a child is able to understand the reasons behind it, a parental separation is likely to be resented. Some distressed behaviour may be evident, either at the time of separation or frequently some months or even years later. Children at any age may feel sad, confused, abandoned by a loved one, powerless and the victim of an adult decision, and above all angry. Angry feelings may show in the form of aggressive and difficult, or depressed and withdrawn behaviour. Parental conflict is likely to have an effect on a child’s self esteem and this may be evident at the time of separation as well as having longer term negative consequences.
While the immediate period after a separation or divorce is likely to be confusing and painful for both adults and children, the majority of children do not experience long term difficulties. However, it is now widely accepted that, at the time of their parent’s separation or later, many children find it helpful to be able to talk to someone who is not part of the family. If children can have their often sad, confused and angry feelings heard and accepted it is hoped that they will feel freer to continue with their main task in life – their development into a healthy adolescence and adulthood.
This is the reason that many mediation services have set up direct services for children and young people. The actual practice may differ from one service to another, but the aim of all services is to offer support for children and young people affected by a parental separation or divorce. In particular this is to help them to:
- Make sense of the changes in their lives
- Understand that they are going through a process that many people share
- Express the feelings that are common at this time
- Develop a way of coping if they are caught in the middle of their parents conflict
- Find ways of talking to their parents
What will a support service offer?
In most cases, fairly short term, focused support will be offered. The child or young person will be offered the opportunity to talk in confidence to an adult outside their family so that their (often unacceptably negative) feelings and thoughts can be heard and acknowledged.
How will a support service work?
Most support is offered to individual children usually in a mediation service but sometimes elsewhere such as a school. Most services will not work with a child under 6 years old as it is unusual for these children to have the necessary verbal skills, the ability to be separate from the parent and the ability to focus on the work. The upper age limit may vary, but is unlikely to be above 25.
Referrals can come from mediators, but direct support is independent from mediation. Services will therefore take referrals from other appropriate agencies as well as self referrals.
In general, services secure the consent of the parent with whom the child lives before support starts, and will also try and secure the consent of the other parent. Young people above a certain age and maturity will often be seen without the need for parental knowledge and consent.
An initial mutual assessment meeting usually precedes support work. This is attended by the child or young person, one or both parents (if consent is needed) and the counselor. The counselor will describe how the service operates and the offer of confidentiality. All services have clear codes of practice regarding circumstances when that confidentiality may need to be broken, for example when child protection issues are raised. The counselor will also try to make sure as far as possible that the child wants to come and is not attending unwillingly. It is also important to try and ensure that there are no serious psychiatric difficulties that might be more appropriately helped by another agency.
The actual support sessions will involve the counselor and child or young person meeting alone in a room that is a friendly environment. As younger children often communicate more easily through play, most rooms will contain materials such as dolls houses, sand trays, games and drawing materials. Parents are not generally included unless a child actually requests their presence, but some services do also offer support to parents on issues relating to post separation parenting.
Many services now also offer support to children in groups either at the mediation service or in schools. An evaluation of support work with children individually and in groups in schools has recently been funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Who does the support work?
The support work is undertaken by qualified and experienced counselors who have also had experience of direct work with children. All counsellors have knowledge of child development and a clear understanding of the effects of separation and divorce on children and young people. They are all supervised by specialists in this field.