Talking Matters

We mediators sit around our tables with parents. The important people most directly affected by discussions about child arrangements are absent. That children would like a direct voice is established by study after study and report after report. It’s hardly surprising. Wouldn’t we all like a say over matters which impact on us and on our relationships with the people who are most important to us, our families?

Mediation is supposed to be child focused even when it’s not child inclusive. What’s the difference you may ask? Well the first relates to the obligation on all mediators to try to ensure that the interests of any children are at the heart of what is under discussion. The second refers to those cases where the mediator talks directly to the children. The problem with child inclusive is that both parents have to agree before the mediator can approach the child to find out if he or she is willing to attend a meeting. As a mediator who is not only trained to talk with children but who also actually does it, my experience is that it’s relatively rare for parents both to agree with the result that there are few mediations where children’s voices are heard at all.

It’s also my experience that a lot of parents are in denial about the effect their collective behaviour has on their children. Don’t get me wrong. There are thousands of parents out there doing an excellent job of parenting together after separation. I salute them because it’s a hard thing to do. However when mediating specifically on child arrangements we mediators by definition work with parents who are in dispute.

Whatever has sparked any particular dispute, it’s almost always the case that communication problems abound. When you start to unpick it all, it’s often the case that communication is only by text. Don’t get me started on the potential for falling out when communicating about issues where each person probably feels the other’s out to control them, tell them what to do, when that is in the terse format of a text. Even if all that is kept away from the children-and it usually isn’t as they actually do listen to what you say to your friends and family- they certainly know when their Mum and Dad don’t talk to each other.

I don’t need any studies to tell me what I know first hand from those children to whom I do speak which is that they are desperate for their parents to behave towards each other as if they at least knew each other. How would you feel if the people who created you together couldn’t even manage to say “Hi” at handovers? It matters desperately to children that their parents manage at least a modicum of constructive engagement over issues which concern them. It makes them feel a bit safer and cared about.

A child I saw summed it up when including in the feedback to the parents a wish that they should talk to each other about things to do with that child in a civilised and professional manner. I’m quoting the actual words used there. And yes I often find the children I talk to so much more adult about it all than their Mums and Dads are.

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