Keeping the Focus on Children in Parenting Mediation

If you are a parent embroiled in a disagreement about post-divorce custody or parenting time, you may be wondering how to get out of the conflict loop. Perhaps an attorney has told you that it is important to take a child focused approach. You may also have learned that the law allows children to have some input into which parent they would rather live with, if the child is old enough and mature enough to reach an intelligent decision. But how much input? And how old is old enough? Is your sometimes irresponsible 13-year-old old enough? What about your very mature 10-year-old? And if your child hasn’t volunteered an opinion, how can you find out what they are thinking? Asking directly is not a good idea; it puts a child in the untenable position of having to choose between parents.

Confusion sometimes leads parents to unwittingly fall further and further down a litigation rabbit hole. One parent hires an aggressive attorney and presents the other with an opinion from a high-priced child custody evaluator. The other parent then sees no option other than to fight back just as aggressively with a competing opinion from an equally high-priced expert. There are cheaper and more collaborative ways out of the confusion. Child focused mediation and child inclusive mediation are two potential options.

Child Focused Mediation and Child Inclusive Mediation

Mediation in general is far better than litigation at protecting children from the negative effects of conflict in divorce. And bringing a mutually-selected child development professional into the mediation process is generally much more cost-effective than hiring competing experts to give opinions in court. In recent years, researchers have looked at how best to involve child consultants in parenting mediation. Two approaches, child-focused mediation (CF) and child-inclusive mediation (CI) have shown promise. (See, e.g., Rudd, Ogle, et al, 2015 and McIntosh, Wells, et al, 2008.)  Both methods facilitate parenting agreements that incorporate aspirational language about co-parenting, such as provisions addressing communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationships. Both also appear to result in less conflict between parents following the initial resolution of all mediation issues. CI, in particular, seems to lead to fewer conflict-related motions, hearings and court orders during the first post-resolution year.

In both CF and CI, a child consultant engages with the parents early in the mediation process. The consultant provides information about the effects of divorce on children, including effects of interparental conflict. A CF consultant focuses on general research tailored to the ages of the children in the family. A CI consultant goes a step further, by interviewing the children before meeting with the parents and the mediator. Feedback is then primarily based on what the consultant learned from the interview. There are indications that CI may lead to more far-ranging benefits than CF. CI, however, is limited to families with children who are old enough to engage effectively in an interview, generally at least 5-years-old or older.

Child Focused Mediators

A potential benefit of CF is that it does not necessarily require the inclusion of an outside consultant. Unless there are complex child development issues (a child with special needs for example) a trained mediator can assume the child consultant’s role, which in CF is primarily an educational role. This requires the mediator to give up, to a limited extent, the posture of full neutrality. The mediator remains fully neutral as to the parents, but simultaneously becomes more of an advocate for the children.

Techniques a child-focused mediator may use include the following:

  • Providing parents with educational materials on relevant child development research, such as age-specific information about the impact of parental conflict on children’s emotional health and social development;
  • Referring parents to other sources of information and support, such as parenting classes;
  • Writing the child’s name on a whiteboard and asking parents to list important facts about the child, such as personality, age, stage of development, and preferred activities;
  • Proposing possible ways to manage parental conflict, and discussing how to incorporate such approaches into a parenting agreement;
  • Bringing the focus back to the child when the parents revert to a confrontational win/lose negotiation style.

In our next post, we’ll take a closer look at child focused mediation. If you think a child focused approach might be right for your familycontact us today for an initial consultation.