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 a free consultation. 

Thinking of Divorce Mediation in 2018? Get Ready…Get Set…Go!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year to finally move ahead with your divorce? Sometimes couples decide to separate but then find themselves stymied about exactly how to proceed. Even after a New Year’s resolution, daily life has a way of intervening. If you are stuck wondering how to begin the divorce process, consider beginning with mediation. Here are a few steps to help you move ahead:

Get Ready: Decide whether or not you are good candidates for mediation.

All types of divorcing couples, from those with few assets and few issues to those with a high net worth and multiple complex problems, can successfully use mediation to minimize the stress and cost of divorce. The process provides greater personal control and increased privacy. These three questions can help you decide if mediation is right for you:

Are both of you willing to work together to resolve your disputes?

It’s the willingness that is key here. Even spouses who aren’t on particularly good terms with one another can benefit from mediation if they share the goals of collaboration and compromise. A skilled mediator can help you overcome any communication obstacles.

Are both of you interested in win-win solutions, rather than a win-lose outcome?

For those with the right mind-set, mediation can maximize positive results for both parties. If one or both of you is harboring a lot of anger, you may need to do some work with a therapist first to ensure that bitterness or a desire for revenge does not get in the way of the best possible outcome.

Is your marital history free of domestic violence or abuse?

If one spouse feels intimidated by the other, divorce mediation is less likely to be effective. If any restraining orders are in effect, face-to-face negotiations will not be possible. Couples who are not embroiled in an abusive dynamic, however, are likely to benefit from mediation. If you are not sure which category you fall into, don’t automatically assume that mediation is not be an option. Sometimes the solution is to substitute a more structured process. A family law attorney can help you assess your situation.

Get Set: Agree on the Process and Choose a Mediator

If you and your spouse are in agreement that divorce mediation is the right approach, then you can move on to selecting a mutually agreeable mediator. If, however, your spouse is less than enthusiastic, don’t give up yet. It’s possible that after receiving additional information and reassurances, they will reconsider. There’s a multitude of information available on the internet, so beware of overwhelming a resistant spouse with too much. Try to hone in on the features that people really need to understand in order to make an informed choice:

Purpose: Many people misunderstand the purpose of divorce mediation. Some think it is like marriage counseling, which strives to bring people back together. Others think it is like arbitration, which requires turning over decision-making to someone else. Mediation is neither of these things; it is for couples who have decided to divorce, but would prefer to resolve their issues out of court with the help of a neutral third party.

Process:  The primary thing to understand about the mediation process is how it differs from litigation. Make sure your spouse understands that mediation is less contentious and more flexible than litigation, is often speedier, and can result in significant financial savings. Many participants appreciate the fact that unlike litigation, mediation preserves confidentiality. If you have children, you can point out the potentially enormous benefits to them of reducing conflict and preserving privacy.

If your spouse is still hesitant after you have made these points, ask if they would at least consider meeting with a mediator to get more information.

Go: Prepare your Checklist

If you have agreed on the process and selected a mediator together, then it’s time to work on your checklist. Your mediator will provide you with more specifics, but you can save time by being ready to go right from the outset. You will need to collect:

  • Basic financial information, including recent W-2s, tax returns for the past 3 years, and complete financial Information about any businesses either or both of you own or operate;
  • Information about your employment status and history, particularly if either of you is unemployed or underemployed;
  • A detailed monthly budget of living expenses;
  • Information about coverage and cost of insurance (medical, life, auto, and other);
  • Copies of any prenuptial or postnuptial agreements you may have;
  • Evidence of any child support or alimony payments from previous marriages;
  • A complete list of your assets and debts, including dates of acquisition, form of title, and source of funds;
  • Information about any children you have together, including ages, schedules, any special needs, and any disputes between the two of you regarding custody or parenting time;
  • Documentation of any special issues, such as medical conditions or special financial circumstances.

For a more detailed look at what you will need, see: How to Prepare for Mediation – a Checklist.

Now you are ready to begin. Keep in mind though that mediation requires patience. Stay focused on the process and committed to the idea that this year will be the beginning of your new life.

Whether you are ready to schedule your first mediation session or are still exploring the process, the experienced and compassionate mediators at Weinberger Mediation Center can help. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Jeff and Yvonne Build a Parenting Plan using Child Inclusive Mediation

In our last post, we discussed how a couple with three children between 12 and 15 years of age made the decision to pursue child inclusive mediation (CI). Both Jeff, a high school math teacher and basketball coach, and Yvonne, an IT professional, wanted primary residential custody of 15-year-old Kyle and 12-year-old twins, Katie and Kayla. Their mediator, Brian Hill, suggested that they try CI, a process that brings a mutually agreed upon child specialist into the mediation. Yvonne and Jeff agreed that this seemed like a positive way to move forward with a successful parenting plan. They chose Dr. Jasmine Landers as their specialist. Read more

Parenting Time:  Which Dispute Resolution Process Fits Your Family?

Couple meeting with divorce mediatorRecently we have been discussing different procedural options for resolving child custody disputes in New Jersey. We followed one family through litigation and another through mediation with a child-focused approach. Today we will look at a third option, child-inclusive mediation. Read more

Parenting Time: Derek and Megan Pursue Child Focused Mediation

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. Read more

Parenting Time: Alan and Cherie Go to Court

Today we are going to look more closely at Alan and Cherie, a couple we introduced in our last post.[i] Alan, a 45-year-old executive for a fast food restaurant chain, and Cherie, a 43-year-old small business owner, have decided to end their 15-year-marriage. They separated about 6 months ago when Alan moved out of the family home and into a separate apartment. Alan and Cherie are currently involved in a parenting time dispute regarding 11-year-old Alexis and 9-year-old Mike. Let’s see how mediation can help them. Read more

Resolving Parenting Disputes in Mediation: Three Families Consider the Options

In our last post, we discussed the documented benefits of child-focused mediation and child-inclusive mediation in divorce. In our next few posts, we will present the stories of three divorcing couples, each of whom decides to approach their parenting disputes in different ways. These families are fictional, but their stories are derived from various real life scenarios. One family will go through a court process, one will go through mediation with a child-focused approach, and the third will go through child-inclusive mediation. Read more

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? Read more

Thinking of Divorce Mediation in 2018? Get Ready…Get Set…Go!

Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year to finally move ahead with your divorce? Sometimes couples decide to separate but then find themselves stymied about exactly how to proceed. Even after a New Year’s resolution, daily life has a way of intervening. If you are stuck wondering how to begin the divorce process, consider beginning with mediation. Read more

Using Post-Judgment Mediation to Modify Parenting Agreements

Many parents successfully launch a plan for sharing time with children after divorce, only to find that the plan blows up a few years later. Children grow older, parents may change jobs or careers, some remarry, some move away. Sometimes rifts that have been slowly expanding for months or years threaten to become full blown chasms around the holidays. This can put further stress on families who are already coping with increased pressure. Post-judgment mediation of parenting issues can help these families get back on track.

For many children of divorced parents, the holidays are less than calm and easy under the best of circumstances. Instead of two or three uninterrupted weeks baking cookies and drinking cocoa, they may have to split their time in a complicated schedule, or travel out-of-state to spend time with a parent they rarely see. Children with amicable parents may relish being able to spend some vacation time with each of them. Children with parents who are not able to let go of past hurts, on the other hand, often sense the tension. Such children may feel a responsibility to reassure each parent of their equal love. They might feel the need to perform perfectly, and to conform precisely to whatever schedule is in place, to avoid any chance of upsetting either parent. No child deserves this kind of burden.

A Smooth Start for a Reconstructed Family

Gina’s parents, Brianna and Joe, have always gotten along pretty well. When they divorced five years ago, they decided to continue living within a few miles of each other. At the time, Gina was barely five years old. She has little memory of the holidays before she began spending half her time at mom’s house and half at dad’s. Her normal routine was to celebrate Christmas eve with one parent before returning to the other parent’s house to wake up on Christmas morning. After presents and brunch, it was back to the first parent’s house for dinner. It may have been a little complicated, but it was all she knew, and it was a way for her to celebrate the holiday fully with both her families.

A New Development Threatens the Harmony

Then last Spring, Brianna found a much better job that was nearly two hours away. Reluctantly, she decided to move. Suddenly, Gina found herself spending every other weekend, plus spring break and summer vacation, in a new neighborhood. She doesn’t want to stop visiting her mom, in fact, she wants to see her more, but she also doesn’t want to change schools. At the end of the year, though, she will graduate from her K-5 school. Her mom wants her to start 6th grade in the new neighborhood. Her dad does not.

Gina doesn’t know what she wants. What she does know is that for the first time since their divorce, her parents have begun to argue. They rarely exchange harsh words in her presence, but she can sense a new coldness in her previously warm extended family—and she knows why. Her parents have talked to her about the two options open for next year. They have been careful not to reveal that they are fighting over the options, but Gina knows. She can feel it.

Now winter break has arrived. Last night, Gina was upstairs in bed at her dad’s house when she heard him yelling on the phone. She ran to her door and opened it a crack to listen. It was obvious what he was yelling about. “The usual plan won’t work anymore,” he said. “We need to start alternating holidays. No running back and forth with two hour drives in the freezing cold!”

Gina crept back to bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Why couldn’t they just figure out how to fix this? She didn’t want either of them to be lonely on Christmas, but she was only one person. She couldn’t be in two places at a time.

Brianna and Joe Go to Parenting Mediation

Brianna and Joe are understandably going through a difficult time with their co-parenting arrangement, but they are losing sight of what is most important—their child’s emotional stability and happiness. They realize that they need to stop the arguing, not only for Gina’s sake, but also to minimize their own emotional stress. Brianna, not knowing where else to turn, decides to consult with a family law attorney, who listens to her story and immediately recommends parenting mediation.

Mediation, the attorney explained, isn’t just for setting up parenting plans when parents first separate or divorce. Like many parents, Joe and Brianna didn’t have any trouble with their initial plan. They reached a settlement agreement easily and filed it in court. As they have learned, however, things can change. Mediation can help parents decide how to address such changes with a minimum of conflict.

Joe agreed with Brianna that mediation sounded like a good idea. They chose a mediator together, and scheduled a session right away.

A Few Tips from the Mediator

Before delving into specifics, their mediator, Ms. Schumann, gave Brianna and Joe a few tips for how to change their approach. “I’m not on either parent’s side,” she stressed, “and I don’t give legal advice. These are just a few general suggestions that other people have found helpful.”:

  • First and foremost, step back, stay calm, and stop yelling at each other. If you can’t keep your cool, then put things in writing instead of talking face to face. If you need to vent, see a therapist.
  • For the short term, focus on the giving spirit of the holidays, instead of on the competition for Gina’s time.
  • Think about establishing your own separate traditions, regardless of exactly what day in the calendar they may fall on. The winter holiday season in this country is long. Be creative.
  • If you can get back to being friends, consider spending part of the holidays together—nothing too stressful, but maybe a low-key afternoon outing of some kind. This kind of interaction wouldn’t work for many families, but it seems like it might work for yours. If you decide to try it though, make it only about Gina, and agree to table any difficult discussions for the time-being. The purpose is to alleviate her anxiety about the increasing hostility between you.
  • For the longer term, remember that whatever school schedule you decide to adopt for Gina, you must keep her best interests at the forefront.

Moving Forward in Peace

After their first mediation session, Joe and Brianna made a pact to table all discussions about next year until after January 1st. They scheduled another mediation session to broach this topic in late January. In the meantime, they would concentrate only on making the holidays as happy and stress-free as possible for Gina.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of parents working together to support their children. This importance can become starkly obvious during holidays and long school breaks. Don’t let your kids feel responsible for keeping the peace in the family. That’s not their job; it’s yours.

Whether your holiday schedule is in tatters or simply needs a tune-up, don’t hesitate to contact a mediator for help. The family law mediators at the Weinberger Mediation Center wish you peace and joy this holiday season and all year long.