The Questions Every Parent Should Ask Themselves Before Mediation

Preparing for family mediation can sometimes be a daunting task. What you are going through is tough and we understand that sometimes there is stress and heightened emotions which can make it difficult to think clearly.

As mediators, we take on the role of facilitating the conversation between you, the parents. You are the best people to decide on the future of your children and our role is to help the conversation take place. Mediators are there to help that process in a way that is neutral and impartial. We don’t take sides and we can’t advocate on your behalf.

What helps the mediation process is if you are putting the children first in parenting decisions. It can be hard to separate your own needs from those of the children, so I’ve prepared some questions to keep the kids in mind.

For the purpose of this exercise, I will use a case study of Sally and Rob who have two girls who are 8 and 10. Sally has been offered a new job and she is has asked for mediation to formalise a parenting plan. Rob has been unable to understand why they can’t continue with the flexible agreement they have. He works shift work and needs flexibility.

1. What outcome do I want from this, and why? 

Sally wants a parenting routine which has set days to accommodate her new job. This is so she can earn some extra income to support herself and the children.

Sally has been finding it stressful that she never knows when Rob will have the children in advance. She will not be able to accept the new job if this can’t be formalised.

Rob doesn’t want things to change. His employer has refused set working hours in the past and he will risk losing his job. This will naturally impact him, and therefore his capacity to pay child support.

Being able to explain or articulate ‘why’ you hold the position you do will help each of you, and the mediator, to understand.

2. Am I being child focused and if so, how? 

Sally is trying to provide a better, more stable financial future for she and the children.

Before the children were born, the couple had decided that Sally would be a stay at home Mum, while Rob worked to provide for the family. They made this decision based on what they felt was best for the kids. Rob still believes this is what is best.

Sally’s desire to work is child-focused when viewed in isolation, however, their previous decisions were also made with the children in mind. Working out what’s best for the children, now there is a new family structure, is the challenge for the couple to work through in mediation. Being child focused can mean many different things.

3. What will the impact on the other parent be?

When Sally thinks about Rob’s employment, she understands that his shift work presents the main conflict. Rob has always been able to work and have the freedom to see the kids whenever he has days off. However, this is no longer going to work as Sally’s work hours will be set.

Sally feels like it’s time for her, and while she understands this will impact Rob, she feels she is entitled to work and wants to take up this opportunity. Sally wants Rob to understand this isn’t just about him.

Rob is concerned that he won’t get to see the children as often, and he feels this isn’t best for the kids. He is distressed at this thought as he misses them living with him full time and it’s already very difficult for him. He can understand Sally wants to work but he doesn’t agree this is best. Rob wants Sally to understand this isn’t just about her.

Considering the other parent can be a challenge because it requires you to take a bigger picture perspective. Your mediator doesn’t expect you to be an expert at this. However, when both parents feel heard, you are more likely to reach an agreement. Your children want both of you to be stable and happy. So with this in mind, being considerate of the other parent is being child-focused.

4. What will the impact on the children be? 

Sally is worried about their financial security and so although she realises there will be some disruptions, she considers this to be most important.

Rob is concerned that he will not have as much time with the children and that ultimately this is not in their best interests. He feels Sally should get a job that can work around his hours until the children are much older.

Both parents agree that the children love spending time with each of them and Sally knows they will be sad at losing precious time with their dad.

The children’s experience of parenting decisions can sometimes get forgotten. Of course, they are children and they have to adapt. However, after parental separation, they have already experienced significant changes and it helps them if they know they are being considered in decision making.

5. What are the possible alternatives? 

When Sally initiated mediation, she had not considered alternatives. For her, the only decision was that Rob would have to make sacrifices and she hoped the mediator would help him to see that.

Rob was also stuck in his position of expecting Sally to stay home or get a job to work around his.

The mediation was at an impasse.

When Rob realised that this was important to Sally he started to think of alternatives to spend more quality time with the children in the holidays. Sally agreed this would be worth discussing. Rob also suggested that his parents would like more time with the children, and perhaps he and the children could all stay there when he is working. This opened up a whole new conversation with options.

When the focus shifts to alternatives it can ease the tension. Parenting disputes can often get stuck in opposing positions. However, when each parent is willing to negotiate and to consider alternatives, the conversation can shift toward one which is solution-focused and resolution is possible.

6. What will happen if we can’t agree?

Try as we might, mediators can’t wave a magic wand. Family mediators are there to facilitate the conversation, but they can’t force the two of you to resolve the dispute. So it’s beneficial to consider what will happen next if you can’t agree.

Sometimes it’s not a single issue as in this example. Equally, alternatives aren’t always easily discussed.

When parents can’t agree they sometimes initiate the court process to have the disputes resolved in court. This requires careful consideration as it is both time consuming and costly and may not result in the outcome you want.

Before entering into mediation it is beneficial to consider what will happen if you can’t agree. In family mediation, if the court is the only other option, the potential emotional impact and financial drain on the family may not necessarily be in the children’s best interest.

This is one example only and you may have very different issues. Try writing down your own answers to these questions before your mediation, or when trying to come to an agreement with your co-parent.

The Leaver and the Left

There is a concept in separation and divorce in which there is often a disparity between where each party are emotionally in relation to the separation.

While some couples come to the decision together, in many cases one party has already made the decision to leave long before they’ve told the other. They are referred to as ‘the leaver’. This can cause a great deal of frustration for the person who is being left.

As you will see from the inserted graphic, the leaver is ahead at every stage. By the time they are making new plans and coming to terms with their life ahead, the left is only just finding out. This in itself can cause a great deal of conflict.

What happens then is the grief cycle for the left, which the leaver has already had time to come to terms with, is only just beginning. For the leaver, there are heightened emotions, often denial and sometimes still trying to save the relationship. This is discussed in full in the parenting after separation course.

The message I encourage separating parents to understand is to have an understanding that you are each on the same path but at different stages. You will ultimately both come to a place of acceptance, however, if you can respect that each of you is at different stages, this will go smoother.

Consider the graphic and where you are now.

Were you the leaver or the left?

Where is your co-parent at on this scale?

What do you think life looks for them now?

What do you think they experienced at various stages?

This is just some food for thought. You may not come up with all the answers you need right away. Processing relationship grief and loss is an individual journey and can take time. You will come through this in the end.

As always, I’m here to help. You can contact me via the contact form on this site or at parentingafterseparation.com.au

Activities for engaging your children online

Often the non-resident parent (be that for a week, or extended period) will report having difficulty in engaging children online. Phone calls, Skype and Facetime are all wonderful ways to interact. But how do you keep them interested?

Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge that online engagement can be both necessary and sometimes the only means of contact for a long period. This not only applies to separated parents but also Defence personnel on deployment, FIFO parents, etc. It’s hard, but it’s survivable.

Many parents of young children report their children are disinterested or seem distracted. They may have 20 minutes allocated but it’s hard to keep the attention of a small child for that long unless you’re doing an activity with them.

Here are some tips and suggestions I give often to parents of young children. Remember that some activities may be trial and error.

Read a storybook

Just as you used to do at bedtime, children still love for you to read stories to them. Pick a few books and have them nearby. You can turn the pages to face the screen and read as you go. They will probably remember some of the sounds, or words and might even join in.

Make them a gift

Get yourself some craft supplies and while on your Skype call, ask your child for input into what you are making for them. For instance, if you’re making a stick figure doll (paddle pop sticks, glue, coloured cotton wool, buttons) – then invite them to choose the colours, fabric or tools you use to create it. These can all be purchased cheaply at a $2 shop or similar.

When it’s done and if possible, send it to them. Or tell them you’ll keep it in a safe place for when you next see them.

Draw a picture

Using an A4 notepad, ask them a topic of something they like. It might be an animal, a farm, a house – whatever comes to their mind. Invite them to give you feedback as you draw. Which colour green? Where should I put the sun? What’s goes on top of the hill? Are there clouds?

PS. You don’t have to be Picasso! Remember, this is not a test – it’s fun for you and your children.

Play a song

Bring out the smiles with a favourite song from one of their favourite characters, kids bands, or movies. Yeah, you’ll be singing along to Frozen in no time!

If you’re musical, play or sing them something yourself. Just aim to choose a song that is a favourite of theirs.

Play a memory game

Okay, so this isn’t like the cards memory game (although if you’re clever you could try that too. Here’s what I mean:

You start by saying, let’s play a memory game! “I remember the time we went to the Gold Coast on holidays”. Then it’s their turn. “Oh yeah, I remember when we went to movie world!” Your next turn “I remember the day you were born and we were at the hospital” Now, they aren’t going to remember that so prompt them with “What is your next favourite memory” and on it goes.

Write yourself some prompters and have them nearby. It’s okay to talk about the past when you were a family. It’s very positive for them to remember happy times.

Remember….

Children learn through repetition – and they enjoy it! So don’t be afraid to repeat the ones that work the best. You don’t need to reinvent yourself coming up with ideas for every time.

You’re doing your best and that’s fantastic. Every step forward is one less you have to take!

Countering Arguments Against Shared Parenting in Family Law

Have we reached a tipping point in the child custody debate?

Despite strong public support and mounting empirical evidence in its favor as an ideal living arrangement for the majority of children of divorce, shared parenting as presumption in family law has historically been met with skepticism among some legal and mental health professionals. In a recent article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, I describe how the past 40 years have produced three distinct “waves” of arguments against shared parenting, and how these have stalled meaningful legislative reform toward the establishment of shared parenting as a legal presumption, placing the burden of proof on shared parenting proponents to defend their position and demonstrate its efficacy, in a way that supporters of more traditional sole custody arrangements have not had to face.

The first wave of arguments was advanced in a manner that considered the idea of shared parenting of children by parents in conflict after divorce as an outlandish proposition. Three distinct arguments were made to discredit the concept:

First, it was asserted that children have one primary attachment figure to whom they become bonded, almost always the mother, and that any period of separation from the primary attachment figure will damage children’s development and compromise their well-being. At the same time this argument was advanced, however, reformulations of attachment theory emphasized the fact that children typically formed primary attachments to both parents, that these attachments were equally important for children, and that children tenaciously continue these attachments in changing circumstances, including after divorce.

A second line of argument was then put forward, stating that child development would be compromised when children move back and forth between two homes, “bounced around like a yo-yo,” with constant movement, two sets of home rules and different parenting styles. The research on children living in two homes found, however, that children themselves generally did not report such problems, and that sustaining attachments with both of their parents protected them from the adverse child development outcomes often accompanying divorce. In fact, lengthy separations from either primary attachment figure were found to be detrimental to child development.

Finally, a third argument was made that it is harmful to child development to disrupt the caregivingstatus quo, and that mothers should thus retain their role as the primary day-to-day caregivers of children. Research suggested otherwise, however: shared care of children was becoming the norm in two-parent families and disrupting shared parenting would in fact be more likely to lead to instability in children’s lives.

The second wave of arguments against shared parenting were presented as more concentrated and in-depth rebuttals of the concept, especially in situations where parents disagreed or were in conflict over child care arrangements after divorce. First, it was argued that shared parenting after divorce exacerbates parental conflict, and that children would be drawn into the conflict if shared care arrangements were imposed on families. Shared parenting, therefore, is only suitable for parents with little or no conflict and who get along well as co-parents. Again, research findings challenged this viewpoint: in actuality, an adversarial “winner-take-all” approach to child custody exacerbates parental conflict, leading to adverse consequences for children, whereas conflict is reduced in shared parenting arrangements where neither parent feels marginalized from his or her children’s lives. Further, research demonstrated that children do better in shared care arrangements even if there is conflict between the parents, and that sustaining both relationships is a protective factor for children in high parental conflict situations. Not all conflict is bad for children. Ongoing and unresolved conflict, however, is harmful to children; in such situations, rather than depriving children of a relationship with one parent, interventions to reduce conflict and support child development, such as assisting parallel parenting, therapeutic family mediation, and parenting education programs, were found to be most protective of child well-being. In response, a second critique of shared parenting was then advanced within the “second wave”: in high-conflict families, shared parenting exposes victimized parents and children to family violence and child abuse, and a legal presumption of shared parenting will allow abusive parents to continue their reign of terror in families. This argument, however, misrepresented the position of shared parenting proponents, who made clear that a legal presumption of shared parenting should always be rebuttable in cases of violence and abuse, as in such cases the safety of children and victimized parents is the primary consideration.

The third wave of arguments against shared parenting acknowledged that shared parenting may be beneficial for most children and families of divorce, including those in high conflict, but cautioned against the use of presumptions in family law, arguing that the best interests of children are different in each individual case, and that judges should retain their decision-making authority when it comes to post-divorce living arrangements for children. In response to this viewpoint, it has been pointed out that research on post-divorce outcomes for children and families has now established which living arrangements are most likely to support healthy child development. Without a legal presumption, judges make decisions based on idiosyncratic biases, leading to inconsistency and unpredictability in their judgments. And with two adequate parents, the court really has no basis in either law or psychology for distinguishing one parent as “primary” over the other.

It may be asked, then, after 40 years of debate, whether we have now reached a tipping point, when researchers can conclude with confidence that the best interests of children are commensurate with a legal presumption of shared parenting responsibility after divorce. Summarizing the state of current research in two recent special issues on shared parenting in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage and the Journal of Child Custody, leading divorce scholar Sanford Braver asserts, “To my mind, we’re over the hump. We’ve reached the watershed. On the basis of this evidence, social scientists can now cautiously recommend presumptive shared parenting to policymakers…shared parenting has enough evidence [that] the burden of proof should now fall to those who oppose it rather than those who promote it.”

References

Kruk, E. (2018). “Arguments Against Presumptive Shared Parenting as the Foundation of Family Law: A Critical Review,”  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59 (5), 388-400.

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