"Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities for the future." - Maria Montessori
It is crucial that in any mediation relating to children, the children concerned are at the centre of the discussions between the parents. Parents have a huge responsibility to ensure that they are putting the needs of their children before their own and that their physical and emotional wellbeing is protected.
So how can we ensure that children are respected in mediation?
When discussing possible options and proposals in mediation concerning children, parents should consider the impact that those scenarios will have on their children and really test in reality whether any proposals they are putting forward are going to meet the children's needs, safeguard their wellbeing and where appropriate meet their own wishes.
Speak to them
Communication is key to successful coparenting and that doesn't stop between the parents it is also hugely important that there is positive communication between the parents and their children. Research has shown that one of the main criticisms that children have of their parents during separation is that they didn't feel involved or listened to in relation to matters which impacted upon them and their future. Healthy communication is vitally important to ensure that children feel secure and safe when going through a family breakdown.
Parents may therefore want to speak to children directly about how they feel and to obtain their views on the situation. Of course, it is important that this is done in a child appropriate way depending upon their age and level of maturity and understanding. It is also important that children do not at any point feel that they are being put in the middle of the family breakdown.
Parents may want to consider whether any matter should be communicated with their children by them together or separately and if separately how parents can communicate with each other about the views that have been shared with them by the children.
Involve a professional
In some circumstances, parents or the children themselves may feel it is difficult to share their feelings with their parents directly and require some additional support to enable them to do so in the future. The parents may feel that involving a professional who the children can speak to privately to explore their feelings maybe appropriate. This may come in the form of counselling or therapy or additional support from the school. This could be for the child only or perhaps for the whole family.
Child inclusive mediation
Another option which is available to separated families in mediation is to involve the children in the mediation itself. This gives the child the opportunity to speak directly to the mediator about how they feel and share any ideas that they have in a confidential and informal environment. They can discuss with the mediator what they would like their parents to know about their views. Child inclusive mediation ensures that a child has a voice in their family breakdown and it can be really insightful for the parents when making decisions about their children. The child is not being asked to make a decision only to share their ideas. The mediator will respect a child's wishes not to reveal any matters to the parents which the child does not wish to share with them as long as it does not involve a child protection concern. Guidelines suggest that it is appropriate for children aged 10 and above to be spoken to directly within mediation but it ultimately depends upon the individual child themselves.
Share resources with children
There are some helpful resources in the public domain for children who are experiencing a family breakdown. It is important that parents take the time to think about whether there are any resources which will help their children and to share those resources with them. Some examples of well-known resources include:
- Voices in the Middle (website) - a dedicated place for young people to find help and support when in the middle of divorce and separation.
- The Divorce Journal for Kids- packed full of activities that will help children work through their feelings and their thoughts and get questions out in the open.
- National Youth Advocacy Service - there to listen to children and young people and empower them to get their voice heard.
- CAFCASS"My Family is Changing" leaflet - a leaflet specifically designed for young people to help them understand family breakdown.
- Childline - a special helpline for children.
- Bear Cards- bear emotional flash cards to help children and adults express how they are feeling.
Returning to the original question as to how we can respect children whose parents are going through a separation, the above represents some options which are available but the list is not exhaustive. The main trend in relation to those options and the published research is that communication is really key to ensure that children are supported through divorce and separation and that their wellbeing is truly safeguarded.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.