Parenting Mediation: Focus on the Children

Co-parenting can be tricky even in the summer months but fall often presents a series of new challenges. Just as kids are finally settling into their back-to-school routines, the holiday season looms ahead. All the tumult can make for rough sailing, even for parents who thought they had everything worked out. Whether you are just beginning your co-parenting journey and still trying to hammer out an initial parenting agreement, or you have co-parented for years but find that things are no longer working as they once did, mediation can be a valuable resource.

Just signing up for mediation, however, is not always enough. Approaching the process with the right attitude is critical. When parents lock horns, it can be challenging to keep the focus on what is best for their children. The more conflict escalates, the more parents tend to direct their emotions toward each other. Sometimes they even find themselves entrenched into adversarial positions without remembering exactly how they got there. Meanwhile, children can become overwhelmed by the conflict and have trouble making their own voices heard. If your child has become silent and withdrawn or aggressive and contrary, it could be a signal that you need to move to a more child-focused mediation style.

What Is Child-Focused Mediation?

Putting the focus on the children does not mean putting a child in the middle of the conflict. On the contrary, that is often exactly what the child is struggling against. The goal instead is to ensure that the child has a voice and feels secure enough to use that voice.

Divorce destabilizes a family, altering the way each member relates to each other member. Parents struggling to regain their own equilibrium must remember that while their goal is to separate from their former partner, their children have completely different goals. Often what they most want is to be able to spend time with each of their parents and for their parents to get along with each other. Under the best of circumstances, it can be a struggle for a child to adjust. When parents are engaged in constant conflict, It can be overwhelming. Children may feel lost in the fight—essentially abandoned by both parents.

What are Some Child-Focused Techniques?

One technique that can be useful in restoring the focus on the children is for parents to think of themselves as “the firm of Mom and Dad.” This “firm” is essentially a business with one goal: to raise healthy and happy children together. This mindset can help parents treat each other with respect while defusing intense personal emotions.

Child-focused mediators may also do some or all of the following:

  • Provide parents with age-specific information about the impact of parental conflict on children’s emotional health and social development.
  • Refer parents to other sources of information and support regarding child development, such as parenting classes.
  • Engage in brainstorming sessions where parents list all the important facts they can think of about their child, such as personality, age, stage of development, friends, and preferred activities.
  • Propose alternative ways to manage conflict and discuss how parents can incorporate such approaches into a parenting agreement.
  • Repeatedly bring the focus back to the children whenever parents revert to a confrontational negotiation style.

Should Children be Involved in the Mediation Process?

While some mediators believe that there are situations where it is appropriate to have children participate in mediation sessions, others prefer to keep the process strictly between adults. Whether children are involved in the process or not, however, their feelings are important. The law even requires consideration of the preferences of older children regarding which parent they will live with. But how old is old enough? There is no magical age, but some children are mature enough to form a well-reasoned opinion starting at about 11 or 12. If a child is mature enough, the next question is how much weight to give their input. And most importantly, if your child is not the outspoken type, how can you be sure what they are really thinking and feeling?

Asking a child directly about their preferences is not recommended. It often puts a child in the untenable position of feeling as though they are being forced to choose between parents. Children are often hesitant to say or do anything that can be interpreted as a rejection of either parent. Instead, a child or family therapist can interact with children if necessary. When a therapist meets with a child, the child can be assured that everything they say is confidential. The therapist can ask the child for permission to share certain things with the parents and can help the child find ways to express their needs and wants in ways that feel safe to the child.

Using Neutral Child Experts in Mediation

Parents involved in litigation often hire individual experts to support their own parenting positions. Bringing a mutually selected child development professional into the mediation process, however, is generally much more cost-effective than hiring competing experts. It also allows both parents to use this person as a resource for incorporating aspirational co-parenting language into their agreements. Language can include provisions addressing communication between parents as well as other aspects of parent-child relationships.

For more information about child-focused mediation, see: Keeping the Focus on Children in Parenting Mediation

If you are ready to talk to a parenting mediator, contact us today for an initial consultation.