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What do children of divorce need from their parents – looking at Child Inclusive Practice

The best interests of the children are always a priority in family law mediations.  Sometimes it can be difficult to gauge exactly what the children of divorce need or want as you hear two opposing views from the parents and perhaps is the child telling the parents two different things in an effort to please them both.

Where exactly does the truth lie, which parent actually knows their child best, or sometimes the question to ask is which of these parents can put their child’s needs ahead of their own desires or animosity for their former spouse? This may seem an extreme view however it is, unfortunately, very common to come across this.

We have recently been involved in a number of cases where the children expresseda strong desire to live with one parent over another. These cases have involved teenagers going from living predominantly with one parent and in fact wanting to switch that up entirely and live almost completely with the other parent.

For the purpose of this piece we will focus on two cases where each teenage girl wanted to live with their father, after being raised predominantly by their mothers. While the specific circumstances of both cases of course differed, the question in both cases was the same: what was the motivation for the child wanting to now reside solely with the father with little or no time spent with the mother?

Was the mother correct in saying that the father was manipulating the child? Was the father correct in saying they were being guided by the child? Was it teenage hormones, or was there a hope that they would have more freedom in the new home? There was no way for us to establish the truth without actually hearing from the child her/himself and in fact the parents involved were a little baffled and wanted some insight into their teenagers reasoning as well.

We felt, as a result, that both these cases would benefit immensely from child inclusive practice (CIP). Here, the voice of the child is brought to the mediation table by an outside third party, an experienced child consultant, who is trained to consider the perspective of the child together with their developmental needs. The purpose of CIP is designed to support and realign co-parenting by setting aside the parents perspective to focus on what the children need.It also allows the child the opportunity to speak to a neutral third party about how they are feeling about the separation and divorce.

In both these cases, the parents agreed to the CIP process. The parents need to be supportive and in fact brave enough to give their child the opportunity to speak and to be heard in a formal process.

The child then met with our child consultant (a child psychologist) at her offices, without input from the parents and then at a later date, provided feedback to the parents within the mediation setting. In the first case, the child consultant had the difficult task of telling the mother that her child found her parenting style destabilising and erratic. It was, she said, causing her major anxiety and although she loved her mother and wanted to spend some weekend time with her, she felt more secure and content living with her father.

In the second case, the child was very angry at her mother as she felt the mother was the major cause of the breakdown of the marriage and she felt the trust and respect was gone. In this case, it was a question of re-establishing the parent-child relationship, and the child consultant recommended family therapy for the child and parents.

In both cases, it was difficult for the parents to hear the voice of their child. Without doubt, it is a very confronting and emotional process. But what we, as mediators, see is a complete turnaround of the unresolved dispute, the parents in each case stopped being so positional and were able to move into a space of understanding and some acceptance that the living arrangement needed to change.

When conducted with a skilled child consultant, we have found CIP to be a powerful intervention which supports both the child’s need to be heard, understood and consideredas well as to re-establish the co-parenting relationship.

We understand that parents are sometimes reluctant to expose their children to yet another element which may add to their confusion in the separation/divorce of their parents, however in all the CIP mediations that we have been involved with, there has not been one that has not been useful and significant to both the parents and the children. Sometimes it has led to trial arrangements to allow parents the imprimatur to try a different arrangement to see how it suits the whole family.We have had excellent feedback from parents about their involvement with CIP during mediations at Hawke Segal Mediation and as a result we will continue to put forward CIP when appropriate and when we believe it is in the best interests of the children and families that we work with.