Explaining children’s roles in parental conflict and how family mediators support children experiencing stress as a result of the breakdown of their parents’ relationship

‘Familial bonding is too complex and too vulnerable a process to be managed in advance or from a distance by so gross and impersonal an instrument as the law.’ Conversely, mediation offers an informal, but structured process in which one or more impartial third parties assist disputants in talking about the conflict and in negotiating a resolution to it that addresses the needs and interests of parties. Mediators do not impose a settlement and participation in the process is usually voluntary. In the mediation process children are considered ‘human beings rather than human becomings’ who do not experience divorce passively and experience events in much the same emotional terms as adults and thus should be given a voice.

Children typically experience family breakdown and consequent disruption to their everyday lives as a form of crisis, defined by Rapoport as ‘an upset in a steady state’.
The initial experience is one of dis-equilibrium and emotional upset followed by a period of adjustment in which new domestic arrangements have to be learned, in an atmosphere that can remain emotionally turbulent for some time. This experience needs to be understood, respected and valued in its own right. Being left out of explanations could feel very much like being left out altogether.

Many parents choose not to provide information in an attempt to protect their children from additional worry or upset. They may feel ashamed at imposing the ‘crisis’ on their distraught child, who is their life’s work. One parent may be too upset themselves to help; upset at the idea of someone new entering their children’s lives after they have raised them or at the other end of the scale, a parent may have ‘moved on’ and not wish to be reminded of the past.

Often, children whose parents separate when they are young wonder if they are to blame. Those whose parents part ways in adult life can feel their childhood was a lie, or the only reason the family remained intact was for their happiness. Both are complicated scenarios.

When asked what would have helped them, children nearly always say that they needed more information, explanation and reassurance from their parents than they actually received, and were uncertain how to ask.

Some parents fail to appreciate their silence may be compounding their children’s confusion and their uncertainty about the future. ‘When parents blame each other for the separation or divorce children are liable to be given conflicting accounts.’ .
Even when separated parents are able to agree with each other, they may still need help to agree how to explain their decisions and arrangements to their children …..
A good mediator can help parents realise the negative impact of not sharing facts and the need to differentiate between children who each experience their parents’ divorce uniquely, even if they are members of the same family. Mediators can help parents work out how to explain their decisions to their children; Parkinson’s suggestion of rehearsing with an empty chair seems an effective, child-focused solution.

Mediators can help parents work out agreed explanations, appropriate to the age of the child. Parkinson lists examples of the reassurances parents need to give their children in 7.16.1, key points of which include both parents being sorry; they were making each other unhappy (rather than they don’t love each other anymore); and that they are working out new arrangements with a mediator – and of course, a lot of extra hugs. This can at least give children cognitive control over events. In the absence of explanations from parents, children gather information about separation and divorce from a variety of sources, especially friends with similar experience and television, both of which can be misleading.

A mediator can guide decisions that take the children’s views into account, as far as possible. ‘Even parents who are angry with each other usually say that what matters most is their child’s well-being.’

In their study, Butler et al (2002) found that even young children held strong beliefs that it was important, right and fair that they should be consulted over important decisions about contact and residence being taken about and around them.
A child will generally love their parents equally, often regardless of circumstance or apparent fairness. They don’t have the faculties to understand diplomacy, nor the machinations of a failed marriage, nevertheless they have the inside track on what the other parent is thinking or feeling about a subject. They can swiftly become arbitrators, quizzed for information or used as message carriers between rival camps. Since children are often the only connection a parent has with their estranged partner they can feel they are the cause of ongoing animosity. Thus they may contrive to reconcile their estranged parents or take on an emotional caretaking role. Mediators should also be alert to parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

In this newfound but undesired role, children tell each parent what they think they want to hear knowing that one party will take issue with their choice. It is a constant stream of compromise and peace-making. Retaining responsibility for such matters is key to parents ensuring children are protected, even if the task seems trivial or pedantic, or requires communicating with a former partner. If children are living in fear of upsetting one or both parents, it is a hotbed for anxiety. What if they are abandoned by both parents? An adult venting or directing anger at a child – that is intended for a former partner – will chip away at the child’s self-esteem.

A child counsellor or mediator qualified in child consultation could talk to a child directly ‘about feelings and concerns and how things could work better.’
The most crucial thing is to encourage each family member not to keep things ‘bottled up’. The opportunity to talk to somebody independent, be it in a formal or informal environment, with a professional, friend or relation, should be encouraged by the mediator.

Children act on gut reactions, when they think something is being mishandled or someone they love has drawn the wrong conclusion. So, when a child reacts, or acts out, it will be for a reason, and it is worth reflecting on why; but mediators should be careful not to reject a parent’s interpretation of a child’s behaviour or claim to know better than the parents. The textbook ‘Learning to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk’ is an excellent starting point for opening up discussions. Longitudinal studies cited by Butler et al (2002) found that many children go through a delinquent phase whether they come from an intact or ‘broken’ home. Furthermore, they found that children find means of distracting themselves to relieve emotional pressure, crying in private.

Part of growing up is realising that your parents are not perfect, and divorce can often throw that into sharp relief. But taking the time to see things from another’s point of view can help to break down why decisions are made, why irrationalities occur, and thus help temper resentment or ill feeling.

Children want to be told what is going on and consulted on the important decisions being made about them during this life-altering time. Regaining cognitive control of events to regain a new ‘steady state’.

To summarise, mediators can help parents by increasing their strength and self-confidence so they depend less on children as a crutch (emotionally or in daily life, looking after siblings etc.); recognise, acknowledge and legitimise participant’s intense feelings, encouraging them to establish ‘interpersonal distance’ and a more business-like, rational relationship (as opposed to partners or friends), suggest to them that the opposite of love is indifference, not hate and encourage parents to look at the situation from the children’s perspective and children’s feelings of loss or confusion, guiding couples to agreements that take children’s opinions into consideration.

Over recent years the attempt to engage with children, and in particular, to provide them with a ‘voice’ in the matter of their parents’ divorce has developed considerable momentum and rhetoric. Any informed understanding of how a child is or might be ‘involved’ with their parents’ divorce implies as much a change in our collective understanding of and attitudes towards children as it implies the development of a new repertoire of skills in talking and listening to children.