More and more couples are turning to mediation as a way to help their separation and divorce process run as smoothly and amicably as possible. The mediation process involves the couple working with normally one mediator, (but in some cases two mediators/co-mediators,) who encourages them to come to a solution that works for them both. The mediator is impartial, i.e. will not be advising either of them, but will give the couple information as to the law and, for example, how in his or her experience the court might deal with a particular issue.
One area where mediation can be particularly useful is in helping to resolve issues around child arrangements and some mediators are qualified to see children as part of the mediation process. Given that recent research from Resolution – a community of legal professionals – found that two thirds of separating parents say they lacked advice about putting children first during family separation, any steps that can be taken to help support families through the process is to be welcomed.
Mediation sessions with children tend to proceed as follows. Having had an initial meeting with the parents, (who both have to agree to the mediator seeing the children), the mediator will then have a meeting with the children without the parents, although another adult will be present. Having seen the children, the mediator will report back to the parents points that have been specifically agreed. If the children ask for some things not to be repeated to the parents the mediator must respect this. The only exception to this confidentiality is if the children disclose that they or another child is at risk of harm, in which case the appropriate referrals, e.g. to social services, are made.
Children as young as four might be involved in the process and children often appreciate having had the opportunity to talk about their wishes and feelings in a neutral environment. It may enable the children to discuss worries that they do not feel comfortable talking about in front of either of their parents, e.g.. if one has a new relationship with someone the child likes and he/she is worried the other parent will take offence.
The mediator will make an effort to ensure that the environment is relaxed, including providing appropriate soft drinks (perhaps even fizzy if the parents agree) and child friendly refreshments (Maltesers are a popular choice). The children will also be given the opportunity to doodle or draw a picture. Most mediators will also write to the children with an invite in advance of the session (in a way that is age appropriate) inviting them to attend.
It is important to emphasise that the children are not being asked to decide what will happen, but told that mummy and daddy want to know what the children feel about the current situation and any suggestions the children have with regard to arrangements going forward.
The feedback from both children and parents who have been involved in mediations where the children have had direct involvement and the opportunity to discuss with the mediator is extremely positive. A mediation can be concluded very quickly enabling the whole family to move on and hopefully the parents to co-parent more successfully.
In addition, mediators are able to signpost families to additional resources and support as appropriate, such as family counsellors or CAHMS.