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Child Inclusive Mediation - A Mediators Perspective

View profile for Alexis Walker
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Over the past twenty or so years of my practice as a family mediator, children have frequently been brought into the mediation room. Most family mediators involve children on a regular basis in one form or another. Actually bringing children into the mediation room happens less frequently. Many children are too young to be directly included; many parents are too conflicted and unable to properly focus on the needs of their children – their energies are focused on their battles with one another; some parents cannot actually cope with this additional element to their relationship / marriage breakdown. They are fearful of what they may hear from their child/ren

Preparing the parents is crucial: we need to set the boundaries and limitations of including their children; they need to be prepared for negative feedback – how they might deal with it, what kind of impact it may have on their relationship with their child/ren; they need to accept their responsibilities for decision-making as the adults and parents of these children.

Where children have been consulted directly in the mediation process, in my experience they have engaged willingly, talked openly and made suggestions about how arrangements could work better. I believe they have welcomed the opportunity to be heard. Speaking to a stranger has never seemed to cause them problems.

Meeting with these children is a privilege. On the whole it is a positive experience for them, and of great benefit to those parents who are properly prepared for, and are willing parties to, the inclusion of their children in the process.

My preferred model is to use three sessions: first one, to prepare the parents, agree on an agenda, and purpose of the meeting; second one to meet with the child/ren; third one to provide feedback to the parents. I have used the feedback model where the child also attends only once – the child asked to do it this way.

I have never used the family conference model. Where it has been suggested and explored in the mediation room, able parents arrange to do this on their own. Less able parents seem to opt for the three session model.

A word of caution. Whilst the Government (the last one of course) was in favour of Child Inclusive Mediation, as mediators we must always be cautious about using it. It is not a “one size fits all” option for mediation clients. Our assessment of its value to and impact on a family and to the child must always be considered. It needs to be right for them and to be a positive experience. It needs to improve their situation – not make it worse! Just because the Government want us to work in this way does not mean it will always be right for every set of parents and children. We need to remain strong if we assess child inclusive mediation as unsuitable, and not give in to pressure from parents who really want their child/ren to make decisions, or who are trying to use the children as a means of validating their position over the other parent.

Most children I have met are perfectly happy for me to feed back the information they give me. Although confidentiality is explained, it has seldom been an issue. I recall one occasion when it was raised. The child was very sensitive to the needs of one parent and was acutely aware that this piece of information would upset that parent. They were happy to share it with me and get if off their chest, but had no desire that anything else should happen to it.

On the whole, those parents who embrace giving their child a voice are open to the feedback and manage it positively. It is a “big deal” for parents and children to bring a stranger into their lives and to bear their souls about a sad and often traumatic situation. We should always remember this. It is after all our day job, but for these families it is likely to be hugely important and intrusive having a stranger involved in their lives for a snapshot in time.

Child inclusive mediation is only an option within mediation. It is a good option for certain families, but it is not THE option for every family.

Find out more about Wilkinson Woodward's family mediation services.