Last month we discussed the predicament of Alan and Cherie, a couple who took their parenting dispute to court. Each of them hired a separate child custody evaluator, and while neither parent was dissatisfied with the ultimate result, both were highly dissatisfied with the level of conflict involved and with both the complexity and the high cost of the procedures. Today, we will look at another couple with a parenting dispute who have decided to take a different approach. While this couple is fictional, their story tracks the composite experiences of many people going through a divorce with children.
Megan and Derek wish to reduce both the conflict in their family and the cost of their divorce. They are already in mediation to resolve a dispute regarding division of their dental practice, but they have had few discussions about child custody and visitation. Megan recently moved out of the townhouse they purchased together during their marriage. She is temporarily staying at her parents’ house a couple of miles away. The children are there with her a little more than half the time. Both parents told their mediator, Evan Murphy, that they would like to be the primary parent. Both also stated emphatically that they wanted to be sure to do what would be best for the kids. They asked the mediator for advice on how to proceed.
Using a Child Specialist in Mediation
Mr. Murphy suggested that Derek and Megan consider hiring a joint child specialist. The specialist would provide them with information and guidance and help ensure that the needs and interests of the children stayed at the forefront during parenting negotiations. Mr. Murphy also shared some information about “child focused mediation” (CF) and “child inclusive mediation” (CI). As we discussed in an earlier post, these are approaches that facilitate cooperative parenting agreements. In both CF and CI, a child consultant provides parents with age-specific information about the effects of divorce on children. A CI consultant goes a step further, by also interviewing the children before meeting with the parents and the mediator.
Research has shown that both CF and CI appear to reduce post-resolution conflict between parents. CI may produce superior results, but it cannot be effectively utilized with very young children. While Derek and Megan’s 5-year-old daughter Ally is close to the age where CI might be appropriate, 3-year-old Jessie is definitely too young. The parents therefore decided to pursue a CF approach and to include a child specialist in one mediation session. They eventually agreed upon Dr. Marielle Chevalier, a licensed family therapist and child development specialist with extensive experience assisting reorganizing families with parenting plans.
The Child Specialist’s Educational Role
Dr. Chevalier purposefully engaged Megan and Derek in their parental roles, by addressing them as “Mom” and “Dad.” She began the session by providing them with some educational materials geared to the social and emotional developmental needs of preschool and young school age children, as well as some more general information about the impact of parental conflict on children’s emotional health and social development.
“Younger children generally bond better with both parents if the gaps between visits are shorter,” she told them. “This tends to be true regardless of the total amount of time spent with each parent. Once children are about Jessie’s age, most already have a close bond with each parent, and the majority can adapt to schedules with three day or four day gaps. Schedules requiring longer gaps, however, such as alternating weekends or alternating weeks, should, if possible, wait until a child is closer to five or six years old.”
“Parents with young children,” Dr. Chevalier continued, “often build planned adjustments into the parenting schedule to accommodate anticipated developments. In general, however, children respond well to predictable and clear schedules, and to home environments that allow them some leeway in creating their own “space.” With that in mind, it’s important to consider things like ease of travel between homes, and whether or not any particular time-sharing arrangement might affect the need for duplication of items. The overall goal is to create a schedule that is easy to follow and works well for all members of the family. Always view yourselves as a team with a mutual commitment to the success of your children.”
Focusing on the Unique Characteristics of the Children and the Family
Dr. Chevalier then wrote Ally’s and Jessie’s names on a whiteboard and asked both parents to list important facts and circumstances about each child, such as personality, age, stage of development, and preferred activities. She asked Derek and Megan how they were currently addressing these circumstances, and how they had parented each child historically. Then she invited each of them to comment on what they thought was working and what might be improved.
Both parents agreed that Megan had been a slightly more hands-on parent than Derek, but they also agreed that Derek had been fully involved. They told the mediator that they had a full-time nanny who had been with the family since Ally was a year old. They were unsure whether or not they would still be able to afford her after the divorce. Megan stated that if Derek bought her out of the dental practice as he was hoping to do, she was thinking about working part-time until the kids were both in school full-time. If Derek agreed to this, she said, it would only make sense for her to have more parenting time. Derek pointed out that she didn’t know what kind of part-time schedule she might be able to get. He also added that he was not willing to settle for the role of a “weekend dad.”
Incorporating Aspirational and Collaborative Language into Parenting Agreements
After discussing the general and specific needs of the children, Dr. Chevalier shared some model parenting agreements with Derek and Megan. These all, in some way, incorporated aspirational language about co-parenting. They also included provisions addressing communication between parents and other aspects of the parent-child relationships. Examples included:
- Agreements to avoid negative comments and criticism of each other in the presence or hearing of the children;
- Guidelines for respectful communication, including specifying preferred methods (e.g., email, phone calls, or texts) and agreeing not to send messages via the children;
- Agreements to facilitate communication between both parents and the children, while also respecting each other’s private time (e.g., an agreement that the child will have up to a 30 minute scheduled Skype call each evening with the parent who is not physically present);
- Agreements to minimize changes to the time-sharing schedule while also remaining flexible whenever possible;
- Establishment of a method for resolving future disputes (e.g., an agreement to mediate intractable disagreements);
- Agreements to facilitate transitions between homes by addressing children’s needs and remaining positive about the two home arrangement;
Creating Clear and Flexible Parenting Plans
At the end of the session, Dr. Chevalier urged Megan and Derek to each come up with a parenting proposal. They could then use these to negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement. She recommended a highly structured plan for a test period. After 6-12 months, they could make any necessary adjustments. “As parents grow more comfortable with a plan,” she added, “flexibility and collaboration often tend to increase naturally.”
“Unexpected things always come up,” she cautioned, “and children’s needs change naturally over time. While thinking about possibilities like relocation or remarriage ahead of time might not be pleasant, these things are more likely when parents separate while their children are very young. Including a process for confronting such circumstances should they arise can help fend off emotional upheaval down the road.”
Megan and Derek submitted surprisingly similar proposals. They eventually agreed to follow a plan that closely duplicated their current and historical levels of parental involvement. Megan would have the children for four days a week and Derek for three. They also agreed that Megan working part-time until Jessie was in kindergarten would be positive for the kids and would eliminate the need for a full-time nanny. If Megan did establish a part-time work schedule, they would revisit the parenting schedule to be sure that her time off and her parenting time matched up as closely as possible. They also agreed to return to mediation if they ran into intractable issues with the schedule.
Megan and Derek were both highly satisfied with their ultimate result. They were also thrilled with the time and cost effectiveness of the procedural path that had led them there.
The mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help you design an appropriate and effective parenting mediation process. Contact us today for an initial consultation.