Category Archives: Blog

Mediation . . . the positive choice!

‘Mediation is an empowering process for the children, and it can lead to their parents making more informed and suitable decisions for the future’.

This simple statement by an experienced mediator has been strongly endorsed by children and young people who have experienced their parents’ separation. While the majority of parents find ways to handle the separation process reasonably by themselves or with minimal support, a substantial minority find it difficult to look beyond the conflict, hurt, bitterness and anger which can accompany relationship breakdown. Conversations with children and young people show that they are well aware of their parents’ distress and the extent to which they struggle with difficult decisions when their emotions are running high. Very often, the most difficult and divisive decisions are those relating to where their children will live and how they will spend time with each parent. These decisions are incredibly important because they have a profound and lasting impact on children’s lives. In extreme circumstances, children and young people find themselves in what feels like a war zone and may blame themselves for the conflict between their parents. This is not only scary but extremely damaging for children. But it does not need to be like this!

Rather than leaving parents to muddle through by themselves or turn to the courts to make decisions for them, family mediators can assist families to sort things out in a more constructive way. Mediators care deeply about the detrimental impacts of separation on children and parents if conflicts and hurts are allowed to fester and persist. What matters most for children’s well-being is the quality of the relationships in the family. Irrespective of living arrangements, if parents are able to put their children’s needs first and sustain a positive co-parenting relationship then children will have a much better chance to grow into healthy, happy adults. But during separation and divorce, however hard parents try, their relationship can break down so badly that they and their children are very vulnerable. Mediation can help families repair broken relationships by focusing on the children’s needs and helping parents to develop a supportive co-parenting relationship while also acknowledging the roller-coaster emotions that normally accompany family breakdown. Mediators don’t take sides but help parents work together to resolve disputes and learn to respect each other as parents with a joint responsibility to do the very best for their children. By reducing the conflict which can get in the way of sensible conversations, communication between the parents is strengthened. Parents who have been to mediation underline the importance of being able to talk together without shouting or hurling abuse:

‘We wouldn’t have been able to talk face to face on our own…there was too much emotion on both sides…Family mediation was great because with the mediator there we could discuss things, money, housing, what’s going to happen in the future, care plans for our child, with an independent person, without kicking off’.

This father, like many other parents, was certain that mediation had helped him and his ex-wife through a very difficult time, enabling them to agree on arrangements for the future.

Mediation also helps children and young people directly. Children and young people have made it clear that because parental separation and divorce have a huge impact on their own well-being and life-chances, they want to be given the opportunity to express their views and say how they feel about the changes that they have to face. Talking about these issues can be very painful for everyone and, because parents want to protect their children from the consequences of family break-up, they often think it’s best to avoid discussions that might be upsetting. Some children welcome this, but many feel ignored and left out of the critical decisions that make an enormous difference to the kind of relationship they can have with each parent as they grow up. While it is usually best if parents talk calmly with their children about the changes taking place, we know that this can be a tough call and parents rarely manage to do it in a constructive and inclusive way if they are experiencing high levels of emotional distress. Yet children often hold the key to successful negotiations when parents are floundering: giving them an opportunity to talk safely and constructively with their parents and with any professionals involved can make a significant difference to the outcomes for them and their parents.

Research has shown that when highly trained and experienced mediators include children in the mediation process parents are helped to work together, improve their relationship and be more available for their children. Children and young people feel listened to, and levels of anxiety are lowered for everyone. Moreover, the agreements reached are more sensitive to each child’s developmental needs and more likely to stand the test of time. Put simply, the outcomes for children and parents can be very positive. As one young person, a passionate advocate for everyone to have a voice in planning for the future, observed: ‘Mediation would be even more successful if children and young people were included.’

Mediation is not the answer for every family, but it can be a positive choice for parents who are ready and willing to resolve their differences in order to put their children’s needs first. We all know that it’s good to talk!

Emeritus Professor Janet Walker OBE, Vice President of FMA

Institute for Health and Society, Newcastle University

Some positive experiences of mediation

The following quotes are all from real clients who wanted to let their FMA mediators know what family mediation was like for them – with thanks to the services who shared their positive comments with us.

“Wonderful result. Very good job, thank goodness there are people like you who will work so hard for a hopefully happy ending in a very bad situation”

 

“Thank you – we’ve made more progress in the last 90 minutes than two years of solicitors”

 

“We had been dreading this, so we kept putting it off, but you have made it all a really positive process!”

 

“I could not praise the mediators enough for their understanding in the way they dealt with matters; they gave us a starting point and helped us reach a decision”

 

Thank you again for working so constructively with us, providing that safe place to share our feelings, listening to both sides and, above all, highlighting all the positive aspects of our situation which seem to have been buried for so long.

 

“Everyone told us that the alternative to mediation would be so much worse and we certainly wouldn’t still be talking to each other by now if it now if it had not been for your mediation service.”

 

“The mediator managed to steer us through the muddy waters and disentangle our financial matters by sticking to a structured programme that focused on the task at hand. I do not think we would have been able to achieve the results we did without mediation.”

 

“We needed to learn to co-parent our children”

 

“Thank you so much for helping us through the mediation process and getting us to an agreement without too much blood being shed.”

 

“Although it’s taken nearly a year, we couldn’t have reached this position at all without your guidance, skills and vast experience. I am deeply grateful.”

 

“I was impressed by the process and particularly by the empathy, professionalism and tenacity of the mediators. There is no question that without attending this process progress could not have been without considerable cost and acrimony.”

 

“Mediation allows both parties to have some control over their destinies and to be part of the decision making. Going to court means you are giving that power over to the Judge and the outcome may or may NOT be in your favour. Mediation is recommended if you are prepared to compromise and do your homework. I think if you have children then it is particularly helpful as they are always at the heart of one’s motivation for persevering. No child will ever be in favour of their parents battling it out in court.”

 

“Thank you for all your efforts; it was hard emotionally but in the long run it was worth it. The situation between us is now settled.”

 

“We didn’t realize we could decide so much for ourselves.”

“It was all so very calm and civilised and significantly helped to reduce the pain and the stress of a difficult situation. It also made the likelihood of the two estranged partners remaining friends after the split that much more likely.”

 

“ It made an uncomfortable situation easier to deal with and resolved things we would not have been able to deal with between ourselves.”

 

“Knowledge combined with empathy, total fairness, instinctive recognition of and respect for boundaries.”

 

“ I would like to express my immense gratitude for the help given and the transforming effect that the help has had on my relationship. I could certainly not have imagined prior to mediation that we would be able to hold a constructive and civil conversation. My daughter is of course the true beneficiary of all this.”

 

“Although it is a ‘legal environment’ the discussions were such that matters could be dealt with amicably and it was stressed that either one of us was able to leave at any point and hold discussions separately.”

 

“I found it a better approach rather than the partner receiving solicitor’s correspondence which they might misinterpret and become difficult. It is also beneficial cost-wise as it is more encouraging to help couples sort things out without added pressures.”

 

“All matters were dealt with in a very caring, calm and efficient way.”

 

“The whole experience was extremely helpful. I’m sure that if we had used the mediation service earlier my solicitor’s fees would have been reduced by far more than the cost of mediation.”

 

“I found the service offered outstandingly supportive, friendly and kind.”

 

“The mediator was lovely and put me at ease quickly, whilst remaining professional throughout.”

 

“Mediation should, I believe, be mandatory for any couple contemplating divorce; very cost-effective I terms of reduction of cost of court proceedings.”

 

“The no-pressure, informal yet fair and accurate nature of the meetings made them extremely easy and constructive. I was able to talk openly without feeling I was being judged. There was always so much advice and encouragement available. Excellent.”

 

“I found that mediation was cost effective, professional and independent. Although there was a lot of disagreement in our case over a small amount of money, the mediation staff were always extremely helpful, supportive and informative.”

 

“Apart from the costs benefits, mediation helps people see each other still as people, not through isolating and hostile letters.”

 

“I wanted to thank you for all your professional skills and sensitive approach to the proceedings, both of which help to ease my uneasiness and pain surrounding the situation. I found there to be a balance at all times between letting us have our say and express emotional issues, yet prevention from straying too far from relevance and point. All instigated, I feel, by your excellent negotiating skills.

 

“I have often thought when I have sat in the session how exhausting it must be for the staff to see people at their worst or most vulnerable day in and out, to see something which began with such hope and commitment reduced to ‘figures’ and ‘entitlement’. Should this ever be the case, rest assured that the service you provide takes a lot of stress out of an otherwise hideous situation and there are those of us who are most grateful for this. Should anyone I know ever find themselves in the same unfortunate position as me, although I truly hope not, I would not hesitate to recommend they pursue mediation as their first point of action.”

The British Justice System is in more trouble than the NHS – what you need to know

By Mary Banham-Hall, mediator, MD of Focus Mediation

Historically the British Justice system has been the envy of the civilised world, copied and admired for its fairness, integrity and skills – BUT it has become unworkable, dysfunctional and is in dire need of reform. The courts and legal system are in a state of crisis and the government’s response is – cuts. One fifth of our courts are scheduled to close and there have been progressive increases in court application fees in recent years, in some cases they’ve gone up six-fold! So what do you do if you have a dispute?

The problem

The problem is the time it takes to sort out a dispute – and the fact that the costs can rapidly escalate out of all proportion to the financial value of the dispute. Some examples:

  • A divorce case in 2015 with assets of £3m, where the legal costs were £930,000, nearly a third of the total – yet in divorces the value of the dispute is usually somewhere between 5% and 30%, as there is a starting point of equal division. It is rare for spouses to be fighting over 30% of their assets – so costs of this amount are out of all proportion to the value of their litigation.
  • There are countless divorces where the costs are a massive proportion of the assets – modest assets of up to £300,000 where there might have been enough to house one or both parties but after litigation there is too little money left for housing.
  • The dispute between neighbours about £4,000 of drain repairs where the joint costs were £300,000.
  • A dispute between family members of no monetary value about the care of a man dying of Dementia in a care home – £40,000 of legal fees were run up writing letters and arguing, and when the case was referred to mediation it settled in a day. This is typical of many cases.

What is going wrong?

If we were designing a dispute resolution system today knowing what we now know about the psychology of conflict, it would be very different from the system that has evolved over the centuries. Basically the courts apply statute law and earlier decided case-law to the facts of individual cases and decide who ‘wins’. This leads to:

  • Expense and delay collating, interpreting and debating the ‘evidence’ so
  • The judge can decide whose ‘truth’ is ‘right’
  • Endless adversarial debates between lawyers often in letters, Position Statements for court etc. etc.
  • This takes months and years and costs more than it is worth!
  • This adversarial system is calamitous to actually resolving disputes – despite that being its objective

There are courts rules designed to ensure cases are well managed – the Family and Civil Procedure Rules (‘FPR’ and ‘CPR’). There is an emphasis on the rule saying that costs must be proportionate to the value of cases, ‘The Proportionality Rule.’ Judges have costs estimates at every hearing and warn people they should settle, but parties don’t know how and think they can’t settle, so costs and delays can mount uncontrolled.

Fighting and Grief

People whose relationships have ended are frequently struggling through the stages of grief. Early effects of grieving are anger and blame – and this can make fighting via lawyers attractive and mediation feel very unappealing. However, mediation is NOT about reconciliation, it helps people work out how to part or solve their dispute in a very practical way. Fighting and litigation does not solve problems it makes them worse.

How mediation could help solve a multitude of sins

We know mediation is very successful at settling disputes – the percentages vary depending on a host of factors – but cautiously 60% and up to 90% or more succeed.

  • Mediation is fast, with family mediation taking place in a series of short sessions over a few weeks and civil mediation taking a few hours to a day.
  • As the disputants share the costs it is very affordable.
  • Mediation is very flexible, so people can agree things a judge couldn’t order. For example, the continuation of a business relationship or some benefit a court could not order
  • People are helped to realise that they don’t have to agree on the evidence of the legalities and will never agree who is ‘right’ – they can just do a deal and stop arguing

Join Mary’s campaign on Change.org (launches today) to modernise the outdated legal system

A simple amendment of the court rules could so easily help stop the madness endemic in the current system. Once joint costs reach about 20% of the approximate value of any case, it must be referred to a mediator so the parties can hear how mediation can help settle their dispute. This will impose a brake before it is too late and costs get out of control.

Putting the NHS right will require more money – we all know that. But making our existing court rules work will cost nothing – so do please go to change.org and vote for change: https://www.change.org/p/the-rt-hon-elizabeth-truss-costs

 

 

Dear Mum and Dad

An email from Jack aged 13 to his parents for New Years Day 2017.

Dear Mum and Dad,

I am sending this email to you both. I never see you together now, so this is the only way to speak to you at the same time.

It’s exactly three years to the day since you split up. It was New Years Day and we had all had a great Christmas, I thought, so when you called Poppy and me into the sitting room and told us you had something to tell us, we just weren’t ready for what came next.

You weren’t getting on and you didn’t love each other any more, you said, so Dad was going to move out. Just like that. Poppy burst into tears. She was only 6. How was she expected to understand? I felt a horrible cold feeling spread right through me. I just froze.

It wasn’t anything to do with us, you said. That was the first lie. Of course it was to do with us. Everything changed in that second. Dad said he was leaving Mum, not us. That was the second lie.

Then he went upstairs and packed a bag and drove away and left us. I was 10 years old and I grew up that day.

After he went, you tried to be reassuring Mum. You said, if things were better for you and Dad and you were both happier, then we would be happier too. That was the third lie.

Since then it has been such a mess. You two couldn’t agree about anything. You wouldn’t talk to each other, so Poppy and I ended up taking messages between you. ‘Tell your father he’s got to pick you up from school on Saturday’. ‘Tell your mother I’ll be late picking you up tomorrow because I’m working’. It was like that all the time. At first I tried to help sort things out. When were we going to see Dad and when were we going to see Mum? When were we going to see Granny and Gramps and Auntie Belle and our cousins? Where would we be on Poppy’s birthday? Where would we be on my birthday?

It was hopeless. You both had the lawyers. We had no one to help us. No one asked Poppy and me what we wanted and neither of you were listening. You were both so tied up in going to court and fighting things out. We just kept quiet, so as not to upset you anymore and there was no one to help us sort out the muddle.

Apparently the judge decided that we would have alternate weekends and every Wednesday night with Dad in his new flat over an hour away. No-one asked me what I wanted or if I wanted to go to court to have a say. After all, it was my life and Poppy’s they were talking about. Wednesday night was my swimming lesson and Poppy’s Brownies, but that soon got too difficult to organise, so we just gave up going. In the end it was easier to say we didn’t mind.

Things got worse when you got a new girl friend Dad, and Mum freaked out about us meeting her. You said we would have to move out of our house, as you needed the money to buy a house of your own. We’d always lived in that house and we loved it. Somewhere secure when everything else was changing. Now that was going too.

You said we should make a new start Mum, so we moved to another town miles away. Poppy and I had to change schools and I hated the new one. I had to leave all my friends behind. We only saw you once a month then Dad, as you were too far away. Anyway, you were too busy with a new wife and a new baby coming. I get all that Dad. I really do, but it was tough when you stopped coming to football matches and neither of you came to Sports Day. I felt I didn’t matter any more, so I stopped trying at school. No one knew me there, so the teachers thought that was just how I was.

The reason I’m sending this email now, is because the same thing is happening to a boy in my form. He’s really upset, but he says his parents aren’t going to court – they’re going to see someone called a mediator instead. She’s helping them sort all this stuff out – who they will see when, and where they’ll live. He said he saw her too and she asked him what he wanted to happen and how he thought it should all work. Then she talked to his parents and they really listened because they could see that it was how he really felt and they want to do the best thing for him.

Why didn’t you do that for us? Why didn’t you go to a mediator at the beginning instead of tearing each other apart in court? I really need to know. Didn’t you realise how horrible that would be for Poppy and me? It wouldn’t have changed you not loving each other any more, but it could have made things so much easier for us. It was your choice wasn’t it?

With love from your son Jack.*

As dictated to Judith Timms OBE. Vice President FMA. Founder and Trustee National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS).

* This is not a real case, but Jack’s experience is typical of that of many of around 240,000 children and young people under the age of 16, whose parents separate each year in England and Wales.

“I wish my parents had known about family mediation”

Trite it may be, but true it certainly is, that parents want to do all they can for their children.   Some will happily declare that they will go to the ends of the earth. Others may not be willing to go quite so far, but there are still a good few who will be moved to go to great lengths, and even some who will jump at making the move in question by upping sticks and heading to the right school catchment area.   Many – perhaps most – may struggle, financially and otherwise, to find a way in which the best interests of their children can be served without increased costs of many sorts to themselves.

Parents who are thinking of splitting up are no different: they also want to do all they can for their children.   They may – at first – not be able to agree what is best and, even if they do agree that, they may not agree how best to achieve it. The focus may then turn to fighting one another. But that brings bruises, at the very least. Fighting one another in court brings not only bruises, but also hefty bills, along with stress, anxiety and delay and, at the end of the day, with someone else then making the decisions which are vital. All of those costs are borne by the parents. But it is not only the parents who lose out: there will be less left for their children, who will also suffer from seeing all that their parents have fought through.

The lament quoted above spells all this out. In just nine words, it speaks volumes about that mismatch between the end, and the means.

In just two words, it speaks also of a way in which things can be better, not only for the children, but also for the parents.   Family mediation offers separating parents a way of best serving the interests of their children without those heavy increased costs. It offers them also the opportunity – which no judge sitting in court can give – of deciding for themselves (as well as for their children) how best to achieve that.  No-one can be forced to go to mediation, and no-one in mediation can be forced to reach any conclusion – reasonable or otherwise. But – with the benefit of assistance from highly-trained, patient and experienced Mediators – everyone who turns to family mediation can have the benefits which I have mentioned. They need only make the simple move to choose them. This is, if you like, the creed of the Family Mediation Council.   Our Mediators are rightly proud to pronounce it.

I am delighted to give my whole-hearted support to the Family Mediators Association in their “Family Mediation Week”.

John Taylor

Chair Family Mediation Council

Please Listen!

John Bell of the Iona Community spoke recently on BBC4’s Thought for the Day about the importance of families having meals together, talking about their day and listening to each other. This sounds like a simple prescription, yet as John Bell said, many young people feel that nobody is really interested in what they think or how they feel. Listening to other people takes time. Time is often short and going online tends to have more appeal. John Bell describes giving time to others as ‘a gift of love.’ Adults can learn a great deal from talking with children and encouraging them to ask questions. Young children have tremendous powers of perception and understanding and can offer insights and suggestions, if they have the language skills to express them and confidence that they will be listened to, rather than being ignored or laughed at.

John Bell pointed out that when young people are accustomed to talking easily with their parents and other adults, their social skills improve and they are less likely to become withdrawn, take to drugs, engage in anti-social behaviour or develop a mental disorder. Children who experience their parents arguing, separating and sometimes continuing to fight throughout their childhood have a very hard time. These parents may be too upset and/or too angry with each other to sit down for relaxed conversations with their children, with the result that adolescents who are often reticent at the best of times retreat into a world of their own. There is no point telling anyone how you feel if no one is interested. The students who filmed the videos for Family Mediation Awareness Week on behalf of Voices in the Middle www.voicesinthemiddle.org use anger and sarcasm to get their message across. What they actually mean is that we do need to consult them, listen and take their views and ideas on board. If adults did this more, we would learn so much, avoid many mistakes and young people would feel respected and happier. Adopted children may have particular difficulties if they feel caught between their adoptive parents and their birth parents. These children may have suffered multiple disruptions and some have special behavioural needs. They may not be the best judges of their own best interests, but when adult carers disagree, how often are children given opportunities to talk with caring adults who have no emotional stake in the outcome?

In December I had a follow-up ‘review meeting’ with divorced parents and their two children, aged 10 and 12. At the previous mediation meeting with them some months earlier (which was itself preceded by separate and joint meetings with the parents), I had met first of all with the parents and children together for introductions, then with the children jointly and individually, and finally, with the children’s full agreement, a short final discussion with the parents and children together. The family decided on some trial arrangements for the following three months, with a date to return and consider how these arrangements had worked out from each child and each parent’s point of view. They wanted their second meeting to be structured in the same way as the first. On the second occasion, there was a noticeable increase in the ease and confidence with which the young people – not ‘children’ any more – took part in the discussions, made proposals and even teased their parents gently. They agreed some minor changes regarding their arrangements for Christmas and decided that, well in advance of next Christmas, they would get together as a family to work out Christmas 2018 in the same co-operative fashion. If only all separated parents would work together with their children like this! I believe many more could do so, if parents would come to mediation during the painful and stressful period of separating and if children and young people discover – from posters at school, social media and websites like Voices in the Middle – that their voices do matter and that – with short-term support from mediators where needed – family conversations can be facilitated and become the normal way to work things out, as we go though life.

Developing a habit of having conversations, sharing jokes and even arguing together would be more effective than medication, psychotherapy or palliative care in strengthening mental health and avoiding depression or other disorders. Theresa May recently announced that her government is going to ‘do something’ about mental health. For a start, the Ministry of Justice needs to provide additional legal aid for child-inclusive mediation, as recommended in the Voice of the Child Group’s Final Report, published almost two years ago in February 2015. Little has been done since then, although the cost of additional legal aid for child-inclusive mediation would be minimal. Mediation is not always suitable or even necessary. Many separated parents take care to work out arrangements for and with their children. On the other hand, 76% of children whose parents fight over them in court are under 10 years old and regarded as too young to ‘have a say’. Child-inclusive mediation needs to be affordable for all parents and better known and understood, to help separated families communicate more easily and thus enhance the mental health of children and young people.

I hope 2017 will be a year in which delightful everyday conversations with children as young as 2 and 3 years old are the norm, so that those who were once 3 years old can go on enjoying conversations when we are 93!

Lisa Parkinson

3 Top Tips for Separating Parents – from someone speaking from experience

Emily Morris 23 is a Fixer. She is also in her final year of her law degree at The University of York.

Emily’s parents are divorced. This process began whilst Emily was an A-Level student living at home. Emily found little information to support herself and her sisters. With the support of FixersUK, Emily wrote a booklet “Its not the end – Divorce support for young people” to give others the support she wished she’d had.

Statistics around young people are depressing. The children of divorced parents are more likely to do badly at school or commit crime. Emily believes that society doesn’t talk about the effects of divorce on children and that with appropriate support, children can manage their parents divorce.

In case you’re wondering, Emily achieved 4 A-levels including an A* in Psychology whilst her parents were going through divorce.

Here is Emily’s blog:

9th April 2012 was the day my parents decided to separate. The date of their separation will always stay with me as my life rapidly changed after. Decisions such as ‘What shall we have for dinner tonight?’ suddenly changed to decisions concerning whether my sisters and me will still be able to live together. This dramatic turn of events had several repercussions because I became so heavily focused on my one single goal to reach university that I ignored events whereas my other two younger sisters were worried and distressed

Here are my 3 top tips for divorcing parents:

  1. Don’t involve your children in the divorce – they are not part of your marriage

In April 2012, my parents announced they were going to separate however this was a rather acrimonious decision. Unfortunately, circumstances meant I was unable to live at home and as a result, I lived between friend’s houses for two months. I was legally homeless whilst working 16 hours at the weekend and studying for my A Levels. Whilst this was a challenge, I learnt many skills, such as adaptability, which will benefit me greatly in the future. I have always maintained that I am simply a product of the marriage and not a part of the marriage. Divorce can be a tricky process for the family, however you should never directly involve your children in the divorce. Your children are not a part of your marriage and therefore should not be a part of your divorce. 

Your children are not a part of your marriage

You may directly involve the children without realising, such as asking your children to live at your house rather than their other parent’s house. Whilst it is normal for you to want your children to live with you, it is important that you recognise that when you do this, you can create internal conflict for your children who love and want to please both of you. This can have a significant negative impact on your children and your relationship with them. Furthermore, you should never make negative statements about your ex-partner because this will make your children resent you. 

  1. Listen to your children – it’s not all about you!

During the divorce, my parents became understandably preoccupied with the divorce and their settlement. I am not saying they neglected their children on purpose but they failed to take into account our wellbeing. At home, my mother would talk (nonstop!) about the divorce and failed to ask about us. In one instance, this resulted in me and my other sister having a full-blown argument with my mother because we had just had enough of constantly hearing about the divorce.

You should never ask your children questions about your ex-partner. Remember, that person is their parent! You should allow your children to express any concerns they have about the divorce on their own accord, but ensure you do not use these concerns to find out any information about your ex-partner. When the children are expressing their concerns, you should attempt to calm their worries and make them understand that they remain first priority. This makes them feel comfortable and ensure they can come to you with any concerns without feeling they are bothering you. Do not ever forget that your children are your first priority rather than your divorce settlement. Your children will only be happy if you are happy. Your children are individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.

Do not ever forget that your children are your first priority rather than your divorce settlement

  1. Ask your children what they want

In December 2012, it was becoming increasingly evident that my mother was suffering from depression. Later that month, my mother left my sisters and me on our own for a month to recuperate. My father decided to then get involved and ordered my sister around to his house every night after school. My younger sister was not happy at being forced and this resulted in yet another argument.

If your children are not speaking about the divorce, you should ask them if they are okay and if they have any concerns.  If you are worried about your children not speaking about the divorce, you could ask them if they want to speak to someone outside of the family, such as the GP.

When making decisions about contact arrangements, you should ask your children what they want (in an age appropriate way) and ensure they feel involved if they want to be because this will help them feel they are your priority in the divorce.

As for me, I’m finally at peace with what’s happened and I’m very excited to see what the future hold for me.

You should seek advice about the divorce and discover what options are best for you and your family. Knowledge is power.  

It’s too late for my family to discover whether Family Mediation would have worked and made my parents’ divorce less hostile. Try a session of Family Mediation and see if it works for your family and opens up lines of communication.

Emily Morris

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.

Bill Hewlett

My parents’ separation would have been less upsetting for everyone if my parents had known about mediation

I was chatting to my new hairdresser (Mandy, 23). She asked me what I do for a living – “I try to help separating and divorcing families talk through some of the upset and conflict and help sort out arrangements for the future”.

“Crikey” she said (or words to that effect) “that must be hard” and later added “my parents divorced when I was 10 and I had to look after my baby sister; I spent my schooldays changing nappies – my mother just seemed to fall to pieces”. What a sad way to remember a childhood.

Yes, my role as a mediator might be difficult on occasions but nowhere near as challenging as the journey parents and children can face as they experience the many changes and uncertainties which family breakdowns bring and struggle to make sense of new situations.

There’s a kind of contradiction for the adults – you can stop being in a marriage or partnership but you can never stop being a parent. I’d say that almost no adult who decides to leave a relationship intends to leave their children too but somehow in the emotional fallout it can seem that way. Hazel, the daughter of one of my clients, now 15, said to me “he thought he was leaving her (my mother), but he left me and my brother too”.

It may not be possible entirely to separate from or be free of your ex if you have children, but there is great scope for jointly working out what kind of separated parents you want your children to have. How we “make sense” of the changes and manage the relationships, will make a significant difference not only to our adult futures but also, and crucially, to our children’s. Very few parents would even dream of ignoring the situation if their child was upset or in danger, or ill, let along do them any harm, and yet in divorce and separation, many children express the view that their feelings, their views and their need for explanations, reassurance and a continuing and easy relationship with both of their parents were largely ignored.

Our Code says family mediators have a special duty to try and help couples end their relationship or marriage in a way that minimizes their distress, and the distress of any children involved, and in a way that promotes as good a relationship between parents and children as possible.

Every parent I meet says “I want what’s best for my children” (have you noticed how quickly “our” children become “my” children?) but unfortunately both parents don’t see eye to eye on exactly what’s best! Where there’s still lots of emotion and conflict around between the couple, it can be hard to step immediately into seeing the best of the other parent or indeed into bringing it out in yourself – whilst recognizing this, I try and help parents to focus on their children and on the future. Family mediators also see children and young people if everyone agrees – not so that the children can make all the (parental) decisions but so that their views and feelings can be picked up as their parents agree arrangements for the future, decide how they will support their children and generally open up communication in the family. We offer a safe space away from the minefield of misconception and miscommunication.

Mandy finished doing my hair and concluded “my parents handled it as best they could but I wish we’d known about family mediation; children need help to make sense of the situation too – and over time. My sister is still struggling to come to terms with the situation”.

Ruth Smallacombe, FMCA

Providing a safer space

I’ve been recently working with a couple who are divorcing and we were looking at how to handle the new roles that both these parents now  face whilst going through the transition.

One area I discussed with them was accepting that their ex has a continued role to play in their child’s life, which is not the same as being required still to like, or admire that person.

Children don’t need to hear you praising their other parent or extolling their virtues, because that’s unrealistic (if you were still on each other’s wavelength you wouldn’t be separating, divorcing or splitting up in the first place) but they do need you to not undermine their other parent.

I always encourage the parents I work with to separate the person from the parent.

I think it helps to reflect on the part that person played in the life of your children, as it shifts the focus from you to them.

It’s helpful to focus on two separate aspects – what you wanted from a partner and what you wanted from them as a parent.

I get my clients to write down all the qualities that were important to them on a piece of paper folded in half.

On one side the heading says ”As a partner” and the other says “As a parent.”

Some of the things people write are:

They were someone who made me laugh.

They were faithful.

They were someone who I was proud to be with.

They were someone who shared my values.

They treated me with respect and kindness.

They shared my interests.

They were patient with the children.

They put the kids to bed.

They listened to the kids and read them stories.

They are capable of looking after the children.

They played games and made the kids laugh.

They gave great advice to the children.

They are a great role model to the children.

Obviously each couple has their own list of qualities that are important to them, and of course some overlap but this is a positive exercise as it shifts perceptions and helps to separate the partner from the parent.

Next I get the parents thinking about those parenting qualities that the parent can still bring to their children’s lives through the changes.

One question I ask that is quite powerful is:

“Are there things that they can give your children that you aren’t able to?”

And this doesn’t refer to material things.

This may not always be an easy process to work through, particularly if that person has hurt you badly or you are locked into real conflict with them, but it’s a hugely important and valuable one for parents interested in putting their children’s well being at the centre of this painful process.

Sue Atkins, www.sueatkinsparentingcoach.com