Children in Mediation?
Parents often come to mediation with the mistaken assumption that a mediator's job is to settle a dispute. When the dispute is regarding custody or time-sharing, parents often have opposite views of what they believe their children want and ask the mediator to talk to the children. For numerous reasons, confronting a child with such a question can put the child into a dangerous psychological position:
1. Children need to know they have parents they can depend on to make good decisions for them.
2. Children should not be asked questions that force them to choose between their parents.
3. Children are often too immature to know what is in their best interests. They'd love to be with the parent who will let them have chocolate cake for breakfast.
4. Children have great difficulty disappointing a parent they are completely dependent upon.
5. Children are often "prepped" to tell the mediator what the parent wants.
6. Children fear retribution (real or imagined).
Contrary to popular belief, there is no age when the child can legally decide where s/he wants to live. Recognizing the age of majority as the legal ability to decide residence and the potential emotional damage to a child, judges do not like to see children in the courtroom. If they talk to a child, they often prefer to do it in chambers and may hold it against parents and their attorneys.
There are appropriate times when a mediator meets with the children. A mediator may wish to get specific input from the children about how Mom and Dad can best help them through this time. Some common complaints are: "Make them stop fighting." "We're tired of tuna noodle casseroles." "Dad keeps asking me what's going on between Mom and her boyfriend." "Mom sends messages to Dad through me."
Another appropriate discussion may be to discover their specific holiday desires ("We want to have Christmas eve with Mom at Grandma's and Christmas day with Dad." "We want to have two turkey dinners on Thanksgiving." "I want my birthday at the pizza parlor so Mom and Dad can both come.").
A mediator may meet with the family after the agreement is in its final form to
help explain it to the children.
In general, a child who is 12 years old should have input into his/her residential schedule. A child 15 years old or more should have very strong input. The mediator should make it clear to the child, or preferably to the parents, that we need input from the child, not decisions. If the mediator does not want to talk with the child, and if the parents cannot gather input from the child without compromising him or her, a child's counselor, or a mutually acceptable child development specialist can often speak to what is in that child's best interests.
Before talking with children in mediation, the mediator should get an agreement from the parents regarding the purpose of gathering information from the child. Ensure the parents understand the child's need for safety and comfort. Help them be sensitive to divided loyalty and dependency issues. Spend some time finding out from both parents what each child is like so you can use this information to build rapport when you talk with the child.
Before proceeding, get agreement regarding what the children are told ahead of time about why they are coming to mediation. The information must be clear (input only) and preferably presented by both parents together. Arrange for neutral transportation (both parents, or trusted family friend).
At the appointment, meet with parents and children together to explain what a mediator does, go over ground rules (we need their input not their decision) and explain the need for and limits of confidentiality. Get permission from the parents in front of the children for the children to talk candidly with the mediator.
Meet with the children together to make sure they understand why they are meeting with you and let them know how you're going to proceed. I find it helpful to meet with all the children together, then with each child separately, then reconvene with all the children again, then meet with the parents separately or together with the children, depending on the information gathered from the children. When meeting with each child separately, arrange their coming and going so they are not influenced by each other or their parents.
When meeting with a child under 9-10, you may find it helpful to have some art supplies handy. Children usually can express themselves more comfortably when they are playing. After some rapport building, a typical children's interview might proceed as follows:
1. Tell the child what Mom and Dad told you about him/her (their favorite activities, school subjects, friends, etc), include what the parents said they liked most about the child (affectionate, creative, helpful, etc.).
2. Ask what they like about Mom/Dad (do for each parent in turn).
3. Ask if there is anything they do that Mom/Dad don't like.
4. Ask if there is anything Mom/Dad do that they don't like (again, do for eac parent in turn).
5. Ask what Dad/Mom can do to make his/her life easier right now (again, do for each parent in turn and consider reversing order).
6. Let them know you are working with Mom and Dad on parenting issues and that you need their help to make good decisions. Make it clear that Dad and Mom are deciding and their role is give information (not decisions).
7. Ask about a child's holiday preferences.
8. Ask if there's anything they want you to tell Mom/Dad.
9. Ask if there's anything that you talked about that they don't want you to tell Mom and Dad.
10. Make sure they understand what you are going to do with the information they've shared. Make arrangements for a follow-up visit, or phone call.