Parents separating is one of the most stressful experiences a family may face. Sadly, it can have a lasting impact on the health and welfare of parents and children, as well as the extended families and friends if both parents do not manage the separation process over time.
It is not unusual for children to feel isolated and alienated when their parents first separate as often parents seek to protect children and this usually takes the form of telling them very little. Whereas, children can be very resilient to change providing the change is introduced correctly by both parents, the child feels like he or she is being listened to and that the child’s feelings are taken into consideration.
It is common for children to feel the need to protect, or align with a particular parent, because children are able to sense the deep distress and hurt that each parent is feeling.
The new and ever changing emotions that a person goes through when they experience a relationship breakdown, is difficult for most of us to come to terms with and children find emotions particularly difficult to cope with. A child’s divided loyalties can result in overwhelming confusion, anxiety and sadness, as well as anger and despair. A child’s behaviour can change as a result of his or her parents separating. Some children may become withdrawn or clingy, while other children may become very emotional and their behaviour may at times be very challenging. This can lead to problems at school, challenging behaviour at home, bed wetting, playing up to the other parent, being disrespectful to parents new partners, or the child may not want to spend time playing with their friends or doing things that they would normally enjoy doing. Evidence also suggests that very young toddlers can be impacted upon if a parents is in distress.
Family mediation as a process can help parents communicate with the child using age appropriate language and engaging in the process can remind parents that it is not helpful to talk negatively in front of children about their other parent.
How do direct Consultations with Children work?
Direct consultation with children involves a family mediator who is a trained specialist in talking with children as a part of a mediation in which arrangements are being made for children. In Britain the government guidelines suggest that children aged 10 and above should generally have access to a mediator when questions about their future are being resolved in mediation, as when cases are going through the courts the Judge would expect the child to be interviewed by a Children’s Court Officer ( as in NI) . FMNI will also assess if children younger than ten should be given the opportunity to talk to a mediator about their wishes.
Parents sometimes suggest that the child or children are involved in the mediation process. Sometimes the child makes the suggestion. It is important that parents understand the views, needs and desires of their children and involving them in the mediation process may be a good way to do this. Children like to be informed and they appreciate having their views and options heard, although they need to understand that they are not responsible for the overall decision and the mediator and parents must balance all of these expectations.
Involving children in mediation can be very complex and a great deal of preparation is needed before a mediator will speak to a child. Different considerations apply depending on the age and maturity of the child. The child and both the parents have to agree to the consultation. It is the mediator’s decision whether child consultation is appropriate.
FMNI have mediators who have attended specialist training to equip them with the necessary skills to consider whether direct consultation with a child is appropriate and to carry out that consultation if it is.
Direct consultation with a child means the child talking face to face with the mediator separately on the basis that what they say is completely confidential ( except being child safeguarding) from anyone else including their parents. Very often the child does have something that they want the mediator to tell their parents, and that they would like the parents to take into consideration when making their decision. Strictly with the child’s permission, the mediator will then bring the child’s voice into the mediation.
The child can either meet with the mediator who is already working with the parents or, as often happens, with a different mediator. Consultations with a child usually last approximately 45 minutes. Siblings will be seen separately or together depending on what the children themselves prefer
There are several websites with material designed to help children understand more about their feelings when parents separate – here are some of our favourites.