So why should children be included in mediation?
Bill Hewlet, Family Mediator, discusses his experiences of bringing children into the discussion around their parents' divorce.
Originally published here http://www.familymediationweek.org.uk/2017/01/25/so-why-should-children-be-included-in-mediation/
I have been thinking about the many reasons that separating parents in mediation should be encouraged to give their children an opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling.
Giving children a voice in mediation allows the parents to make decisions from an informed position.
If they know how their children are feeling, they can, with the help of the mediator, work to make things better for all the family, creating a better parenting relationship that will leave the children free to grow and develop without concerns about how their parents are getting on with each other.
Parents usually try to shield their children from conflict, but invariably the children know that something big is happening when their parents separate and they can often feel left out. Including children in the process and letting them feel that their views and feelings are important is a very positive thing and can help alleviate their anxiety and confusion.
Bear in mind that these parents are probably struggling to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives and they may also be finding it hard to focus on how their children are coping. The challenge is that, even though these parents are currently unable to talk to each other constructively and reassuringly about their children, they still have responsibility for making decisions that influence where the children live, what they eat, what school they go to, how they feel about themselves, how well they sleep, the list goes on. It appears that nothing matters more to children than what their parents think of each other.
When parents are fighting with each other they seem to lose their ability to be fully aware of how their children are feeling. The children may not want to say anything because they don’t want to add to an already stressful situation.
I often feel when we hear parents speaking harshly about each other, that we are hearing a description of a world that must be very difficult and dangerously stressful for their child and I feel that we should be reacting with immediate and urgent concern. This is what we should be thinking about when we hear the lack of respect that the parents have for each other, when we hear them question each other’s morality, when they tell us that they hate each other. The dangerously toxic environment that these children are living in could cause them lifelong harm, seriously compromising their wellbeing and their capacity to thrive now and in the future. We know that these parents are often so stressed and full of anxiety, thinking catastrophic thoughts, terrified about their future and afraid of what the other parent might do, that they are often only barely coping. And, while they are going through all this, they have absolute and ultimate responsibility for the mental, emotional, physical wellbeing of their children. In mediation, we take these concerns really seriously and want to do all we can to help the parents make a safer world for their children.
The Bottom line is, that regardless of how the children are choosing to talk about how their parents are managing their separation, if things aren’t good between their parents, then they won’t be good for the children. The reality is that ‘there’s no such thing as a still child around chaotic parents’ (Winnecott).
We need some way to draw the attention of the parents to what is happening to their children. When the parents are aware as to how their relationship is impacting on their children they will naturally be concerned and want to create an environment where their children can thrive
Children don’t want to be the decision makers on what arrangements are made for their care and welfare, but generally, (if they don’t think it’s going to make things worse), they would like to talk about it. If they could talk to someone who is committed to taking their perspectives into discussion with the parents, someone who they can feel confident will not make it worse, someone who can tell their parents things that maybe they haven’t been able to, then they often feel like a heavy burden has been lifted.
When children are helped to talk about their feelings, they begin to understand more and more about what’s going on for them. Children have a need to talk through things so that they can get a sense of how they should think and feel. They are designed to link up their young brains with a grown up adult brain to help make sense of things, to get a bigger picture perspective. When someone helps them to put a word to something they have been feeling but not perhaps not fully understanding, they feel better. We call it ‘naming it (the emotion) and taming it (the fear)’ (Seigel).
If you are thinking of using mediation to help you work out your parenting arrangements for your children now that you have separated, why don’t you ask your mediator to arrange for a child consultant to meet with your children? This will help you both to make plans that will allow your children to thrive, safe in the knowledge that they will appreciate being asked.