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Do Our Children Know Best?

Do Our Children Know Best?

Do Our Children Know Best? The Voice of the Child in Family Mediation

As an Accredited mediator, I am sometimes called upon to meet with the children of parents that are in the mediation process with me. This enables me to further help parents with the issues that challenge them during or following separation and divorce. By far the greatest importance of this exercise though is that it gives the children an opportunity to contribute their views. Very few decline the opportunity. Most happily share their views and are content for those views to be fed back to their parents in a separate mediation session.

Properly prepared, children and parents can benefit greatly from the exercise although a recent experience of this served as a reminder of the caution that must also be exercised when considering relying on 'what the child wants' to make arrangements and future plans.

When in dispute, parents sometimes seem to forget that they are the parents, and it is their duty to make joint decisions for the benefit of their child. Even before separation and divorce, strategies had to be developed by them to do this even if they didn't agree. This can be more difficult when parenting apart and mediation is well placed to assist with ongoing constructive communication strategies.

In hearing the children's views, there can be a temptation to want to do what a child has said, especially if it seems to align with one person's views and sometimes, what the child thinks they want, doesn't necessarily serve that child fully.

Recently, I had the pleasure of mediating with a family who had teenage children but one child under 10 years. Whilst children under 10 years are not routinely involved in mediation, I gave that younger child the opportunity to meet me so that there were no feelings of being excluded from the issues that were impacting the whole family.

The meeting with that child was short and with the older sibling. All the children were very clear that they wanted their parents to stop fighting and indeed this is common to most children of separated parents.

The first thing the youngest child told me was that they desired 50/50 although wasn't really clear what was meant by that. When hearing what the older sibling thought, the younger child echoed that desire. All entirely natural as far as my experience goes. The youngest child then told me of a desire not to go to school and described the frustrations with that experience.

In later mediation discussions with the parents, it was interesting that one parent then advocated an arrangement for the younger child, based on what that child had said was wanted. Because I had seen the child, I was able to caution the parents to think carefully and remind them that the child also desired to abstain from school. Would they do that too? How much weight did they want to attach to what the child said was wanted?

As uncomfortable as it can be, the parents were able to pause and consider their roles and duties as parents. They were able to dig deep and look carefully at what the dispute was and whether it served any real purpose to continue to oppose each other. Of great concern was what their ongoing dispute and attitude towards each other was doing to the children. This was at the forefront of the children's minds when they saw me and said their parents should stop fighting.

Whilst it may be important for children to feel included in what is happening to them and to understand at an age-appropriate level, all adults may need to be careful about putting the child in the position of decision maker. The adults usually have all the information they need to make informed decisions, as well as advice from others that may have other experience and knowledge to contribute. The adults are usually equipped to understand the consequences of their decisions. The same cannot always be said for the children even though their views are being contributed.

Tracy Cross​ – ​Partner & Head of Family

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