Disagreements about child custody and visitation are often the most emotionally challenging aspect of a divorce for parents. Sometimes both parents want primary residential custody, and sometimes one parent wants to share parenting time equally while the other does not. A less common, but often very challenging situation is that one parent wants to drastically limit the other’s visitation time and decision-making authority due to some type of concern regarding the latter’s parenting ability.
When is mediation a good vehicle for attempting resolution of these kinds of issues?
First of all, if you have a legitimate reason for believing that your child’s other parent is abusing or neglecting your child, or is otherwise behaving in a way that poses a real danger to the child—abusing substances during parenting time, for example—then mediation is probably not the best forum for your dispute. Your first step ought to be a consultation with a family law attorney who can advise you regarding the best way to ensure your child’s safety. For more, see our article, When Do I Need to Move From Mediation to Litigation?
If your concerns about the other parent are less clear-cut, however, you may want to take a step back before immediately concluding that child custody mediation won’t work. Parents going through separation or divorce sometimes become extremely anxious about being separated from their children. This is normal and understandable. Any situation involving personal loss—like a divorce—can stir up anxieties about further potential loss. If you suspect that your own separation anxiety might be causing you to magnify a disagreement about parenting style, consider talking to a family therapist to get some perspective on the situation. In some cases, mediation can be a good forum for expressing your concerns. If, for example, your fears stem from the fact that you are a very cautious person, while the other parent is not doing anything clearly dangerous but simply tends to be more of a risk-taker, you are more likely to gain cooperation and reassurance by directly expressing your safety concerns than by going on the attack and making hostile accusations.
Child Custody Mediation
What if you feel you are both good parents, but each of you wants to be the child’s home base, or only one of you wants to share equal parenting time?
Child custody mediation is well-suited to helping parents resolve these types of issues, because it allows them to take the time necessary to focus very closely on a child’s individual needs and make sure that all of the relevant details are out on the table. In the course of mediating your custody dispute, you and your co-parent may find yourselves coming up with creative ways to maximize a child’s time with each parent, while still taking all of the specific circumstances and practical considerations into account. To do this, your mediator may ask you to answers some questions about your child and your family lifestyle. Here are a few common questions to get you started:
- Do both of you currently participate equally in child care or is one parent currently the primary parent?
- Which specific parenting tasks do each of you currently perform and does either parent want this to change?
- Where do each of you currently live and is either of you contemplating a move in the near future?
- Do you generally get along with each other, or is a close co-parenting relationship likely to increase conflict rather than decrease it?
- What are your respective work demands, and are they likely to stay the same or change?
- Where is your child’s school?
- Where are your child’s extracurricular activities?
- What kind of transportation needs does your child have?
- Do you need to consider the location or needs of other caregivers, such as extended family members?
- How old is your child?
- What is your child’s temperament?
- Is your child easy-going and adaptable or easy upset by frequent changes?
- Is your child generally organized and able to keep track of belongings or very disorganized?
As you sort through these and other questions, the practical solutions may become clear to both of you. If, however, you continue to struggle, consider whether or not you might benefit from the help of a child custody specialist. Parents who take their custody issues to court sometimes end up hiring individual custody experts. These experts perform full evaluations, interviewing the parents, the children, and often teachers, coaches, doctors and others with information about the child. Evaluations tend to be extremely expensive, not to mention intrusive, and paying for an evaluation does not guarantee a positive result. If you feel that you really do need input from a professional, consider hiring one expert together, to act as a child specialist for your mediation process.
Ideally, a child specialist will be a licensed mental health professional with training in child development and family systems, and will have extensive experience working with families going through divorce. This kind of specialist won’t take sides with either parent, but will provide both parents with information and guidance, and above all, will look out for the best interests of the children, ensuring that their needs stay at the forefront during parenting negotiations.