Giving children a voice when their parents separate can be very important, and is often overlooked by parents who assume that by telling the children what is happening they are also listening.
The very time when children need the support of their parents most is often the time when the pain and anxiety of separation can be overwhelming for the parents, which makes it hard to really listen to your children. Research indicates how often children feel that they have no voice.
“Children whose parents discuss what is happening in the family with them and ask how it makes them feel not only survive the immediate shock better but also adapt more easily to the new circumstances” (Penelope Leach: Family Breakdown).
Children can benefit from having someone else who can listen to how they are feeling and be an independent voice. Children will not want to hurt the feelings of their parents; they may even be anxious around them or feel guilt and take responsibility for the breakup upon themselves.
Child consultation through a mediator provides a safe and confidential space for a child to be individually seen and share his/her hopes and concerns, perspectives and considerations in relation to the changed family circumstances.
The key principles of consultation are valuing, listening and respecting both children and their parents. It is important to balance the children’s involvement with not overburdening them with responsibility. It is important to focus on the best outcomes for children. Using an independent mediator for child consultation can be a positive additional option for families.
How does the process work?
The child’s age and maturity are relevant; both parents must agree to a mediator talking to the child or children and must also be willing to take on board whatever the child says. Generally, the child will see a different mediator from the one working with their parents. It is unusual to involve children under seven years of age unless with their older siblings.
It is important that the child feels relaxed and wants this opportunity to express him/herself, so any coaching or coercion must be avoided, and there should be no cross-examination afterwards.
Generally, someone other than the parents brings the child to the consultation and collects them afterwards. The mediator will then report back to the parents with their own mediator also present (at a co-mediated session). But it is important to note that due to the confidential nature of the child consultation, the mediator will only report back what the child has permitted the mediator to say.
The child consultant/mediator will prepare the feedback from the child with the child’s involvement but present it separately to the parents, who can continue discussions with their own mediator. As parents you need to be prepared to hear what your child says or does not say. There is always the possibility that it may be upsetting
Why should I consider child consultation?
- As already discussed, many children feel that their voice is not heard when their parents separate. They may feel excluded from the process;
- It can be useful to consult when there are specific proposals to discuss;
- When both parents acknowledge that there is a block to understanding;
- There needs to be a certain level of agreement between the parents;
- Consultation can be harmful if parents have very definite positions and that places a child in a situation where they have to ‘choose’ between parents;
- Consultation is an information gathering exercise which can inform parental decision making;
- It gives the children an opportunity to be heard in a structured and managed way.
What children say they need or appreciate when parents separate
- Being kept informed by both parents about what is happening;
- Being reassured that it is ‘not their fault’ that mum/dad left home;
- Being reminded that both parents love them;
- Knowing where both parents are;
- Knowing about the plans for them to see both parents (see parenting plans);
- Visits being frequent and regular;
- Parents not fighting about them and/or in front of them;
- Being allowed to be sad when they leave/say goodbye to one or other parent;
- Being able to talk on the phone in private to either parent when needed;
- Being able to talk about one parent to the other;
- Not being asked to keep secrets;
- New partners being introduced sensitively;
- Not having to share mum or dad with a new partner and/or other children for all of the time they spend with them;
- Not having to make too many changes all at once;
- Not having to choose between their parents;
- Being able to continue to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc.;
- Not having their normal key events or special occasions marginalised because of parents’ desire for ‘equal’ time-split;
- Not always being ‘packaged’ together in sibling situations;
- Not having to ‘parent’ their parents;
- Wanting time for discussions and attention of parents rather than just ‘activities’.
As adapted by Adrian Wright from Monica Cockett’s : Devon Family Mediation Agency