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Some of the considerations discussed in this article apply generally to mediating a successful parenting plan regarding children of all ages, while others are more important depending upon the age of the children. Domestic relations courts will require that the parties submit a parenting plan that addresses a variety of key issues. In divorce mediation, parents are able to negotiate and resolve those key issues, and address other parenting issues that maybe personally important to you, but beyond the scope of what a domestic judge would normally decide.
I. Considerations for Children Ages Birth to Toddler
The general aim is to try to do what is in the best interest of your children. With very young children, parents should attempt to keep consistent schedules at both homes. Consistent feeding and sleep schedules are especially important. Also, parents should try their best to communicate and support one another with development tasks such as potty training.
Another very important issue to discuss in mediation, regarding children of all ages, is how to handle emergencies. Every parent wants to be made aware of an emergency. Parents should discuss who will be called, when, and provide one another with contact numbers and backup emergency contact numbers.
Parents need to realize that change is inevitable, and that even with the most comprehensive and thoughtful plan, unanticipated situations will occur. This is especially the case when you are crafting a shared parenting plan that is intended to suffice through an entire childhood. Thus, it is important to have a conversation in divorce mediation regarding how you will handle the unexpected situations that your parenting plan does not address. Heading into court to resolve an unexpected conflict is normally a costly and unsatisfying experience. Including a provision that the parties agree to attempt mediation before getting the court involved is normally a more effective option.
II. Considerations for Children of Grade School Age
Of course with elementary age children, consistency and having emergency plans are still important. However, now a few more issues deserve discussion in divorce mediation.
Consistent Parenting Time Schedules
Children will pretty much go along with any parenting schedule and be okay with it, so long as it is consistent. Children need to know when they are coming and going, and it must not change (at least not very often and without good reason). Keeping to the schedule and making that schedule readily available to the children are very important. Once a schedule is worked out in divorce mediation, it is a good idea to highlight it and post it on the refrigerator (or other common place) at each home. Parents should attempt to negotiate a parenting time schedule that works best for the both the parents and children, with the understanding that both parents’ and children’s schedules will likely change throughout childhood. Be prepared to have to sit down and mediate again as jobs change, or activities for children change.
Keep in mind that you will only ever be able to effectively control what happens during the time when your children are with you. Thus, if there are particular activities that you want your children to experience, you will only be able to advance those activities during your time. You will need the support of your former spouse regarding other activities, which may interfere with his or her time. Thus, you both have very good incentives to communicate and work together for not only the kids’ sake, but yours too.
Appropriate Conversation & Communication
It is important to discuss and agree upon during mediation what is and what is not appropriate conversation and communication with (and in front of) your children. For example, telling your children that you are divorcing is appropriate. Tell them why you are divorcing is not. Also, it is not appropriate for either parent to talk negatively about the other parent in front of (or in ear shot of) the children. This is putting your children in the middle of your fight and it will negatively affect your children. Talking about issues related to your children such as money or other adult issues you may have with your former spouse is not appropriate. Again this is putting your children in the middle of adult matters. It is in your children’s best interest if you and your spouse can agree in mediation to not discuss such matters in front of the children.
To successfully negotiate some mediation issues, tangible documents must be readily available. Child support is one of those issues. All domestic courts require that that the parties address child support issues for all minor children. To calculate child support amounts, your mediator will need to know various income related information, childcare costs, health insurance costs, and possibly other child related expense information. It makes no sense to discuss those issues without the parties having documents to support those figures. Parties can avoid conflict by bringing to divorce mediation documents to support those numbers.
Not only are documents that evidence financial figures necessary to run child support calculations necessary, but also, documents such as school and activity schedules are essential for negotiating parenting time. Do not waste your time in a divorce mediation session not having these necessary documents with you.
III. Considerations for Teenage Children
If you are ending a marriage and teenage children are involved, you should consider addressing a few other issues in your divorce mediation sessions –such as transferring children, involving counselors, and setting healthy, consistent boundaries.
Communication & Consistency
Appropriate communication with and in front of your children is still an important matter to discuss in divorce mediation when teenagers are involved (see Part 2). Additionally, being consistent with schedules is essential (See Part 2). As teenagers begin to have independent lives and get involved in activities, such as employment, it becomes increasingly significant to have a schedule in place upon which they can depend and plan around.
How to handle the physical transfer of children between households is something divorcing parents should consider discussing in divorce mediation for children of all ages. As always the focus should be on minimizing conflict --as this is in the best interests of your children. Particulars that might be discussed in divorce mediation include: where will the transfer occur; and who will be present at the transfer. If the two of you cannot engage without conflict, maybe it is better to pick up and drop children off at neural home, such as that of a grandparent. If a new romantic interest is going to be upsetting to the situation, then perhaps efforts should be made to avoid that person being present. If child-related issues need to be discussed, how will they be handled? For instance, can you agree to go somewhere outside of the earshot of the children, or discuss them on the phone before or after the pick up? Keep in mind that it is very upsetting to children to be in the middle of any sort of conflict between their parents. Efforts now to address some of these issues in divorce mediation, and come to agreements, will be helpful later.
It is not uncommon for teenagers (and school age children too) to have a difficult time adjusting to their parents’ divorce. Even with the most well intentioned parents, children often feel in the middle of the conflict, or blame themselves for the situation. Behaviors to watch out for include failing grades, personality changes, disassociation from friends or family, depression, withdrawal from normal activities, and drug use. It is a good idea to discuss in divorce mediation what you intend to do if you observe that your child is not adjusting well to the divorce. Will you get your children in counseling? How will you choose a counselor? Who will pay for it? Children may or may not be receptive to the idea of therapy, but they will definitely be more receptive if both parents are encouraging.
BoundariesWhile it is tempting to want to be more of a friend to your children when they reach their teenage years, this is precisely the time when they are looking to you as parents to help them set good, healthy boundaries. This is sometimes a tricky area to mediate, but the discussion might center around keeping similar rules regarding when children need to be home, how they are to check in, how and what information needs to be provided regarding sleepovers, etc. This is your opportunity to try and get on the same page with your spouse about these issues. It will have negative ramifications for your children if one parent is the “good-time Charlie”, while the other attempts to set healthy boundaries. Children unfortunately end up learning the hard way (often through unfortunate experiences) when parents give their children mixed messages.
Lisa Nelson has been a mediator for over 13 years, primarily focused on helping couples resolve issues related to ending their marriage. She has advanced training in mediation, holds a law degree, and ran a family law and mediation practice for many years before shifting her practice solely to mediation. She has worked with families and children through various court systems, non-profit & for profit organizations, and universities for over 20 years.
The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc., Mediate.com or of reviewing editors.