Five ways to prioritize children’s interests in family mediation 

Your children may not be physically present during a family mediation session, but they should never be far from your mind or that of your former partner.

Amid the emotional turmoil that comes with every separation, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in conflict and point-scoring against your ex, even in the more cooperative environment of family mediation. 

Whether I’m acting as counsel to one of the parties or as the mediator myself, I aim to ensure that the proceedings remain child-centred by encouraging parents to think about how their decisions will affect their kids.

Here are five ways to help parents put their children first during the process. 

1. Discuss how to break the news

Sharing the news of your separation with your children is not a conversation many will relish, but it is necessary.

As painful as the discussion may be, it beats the most common alternatives pursued by parents through the ages: pretending that everything is fine or a sudden departure from the family home. 

The simple act of expressing your concerns to your former partner and a mediator often removes a lot of the dread surrounding the announcement. It also clears the way for everyone involved to start talking about which approach will work best for breaking the news to your children, depending on their age and maturity.

2. Smooth the transition

Change is inevitable following a separation, regardless of how amicable your relations are with your ex.

Anything parents can do to maintain some sense of continuity will help their children adjust to the reality of their new lives. For some, this might involve a nesting arrangement during the transition, where the children stay in the marital home, and their parents live elsewhere, cycling in and out during their parenting time.

For others, it could be as simple as ensuring their kids can continue participating in the same extra-curricular activities they enjoyed while their parents were still together.

If there is a plan to change schools, I encourage parents to work together and brainstorm solutions to minimize disruption. For example, they might consider modifying the parenting schedule temporarily to make it to the end of the school year.   

3. Set ground rules with your spouse

Putting your kids first involves laying ground rules with your former spouse. Sharing children gives former partners little choice but to maintain a connection to one another beyond separation.

You can set the tone for a respectful and functional relationship far into the future by agreeing not to speak negatively about each other or discuss any of the details of your divorce and the court process with — or even within earshot of — your children.

As tempting as it may be to vent about your ex, there’s no quicker way to escalate the conflict in a separation than by disparaging them to your child. 

In some cases, former spouses don’t need any spark to get into a fight, but they can still take steps to minimize the opportunities for flashpoints. For example, structuring exchanges around school pickups can reduce the need for face-to-face interactions.

4. Explore counselling

Many children need additional help during times of transition, and I am always happy to connect parents with counsellors or therapists who specialize in youth support.

Addressing mental health struggles is more important than ever for youngsters growing up in an era of unprecedented unrest. 

The Canadian Mental Health Association recently reported that three in four children with mental health issues cannot get the help they need as the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded existential worries.

5. Give kids a voice

There is plenty of legal support for the idea that children should be allowed a voice in their parent’s separation. 

For example, Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act requires judges to take into consideration the preferences of children in certain situations, while the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes the right of a child to be heard in judicial and administrative proceedings affecting them.

Giving your children an opportunity to be heard is not the same as allowing them to decide what happens, and there are many ways to bring their views into proceedings. At the more formal end of the scale, social workers or other professionals could be called in to conduct an assessment or prepare a “Voice of the Children” report, similar to those used in court.  

If you have questions about family mediation and want to explore your options, please contact me.

Darlene Rites

Darlene Rites