Where are the children during the distance mediation process?

Today’s posting comes from Laura Luz, mediator, educator and one of the Distance Family Mediation’s team members.  Laura is also a Legal Information Counsellor with BC Families in Transition in Victoria.*  She and other counsellors at the centre provide various types of assistance to British Columbian families who are separating or going through divorce.

Laura’s posting originates from a visit I recently had with her and some of her counsellor colleagues at the centre.  During our conversation about the distance mediation process, one of the counsellors posed the question, “Where are the children during this process?” – that is, how is the presence of the children managed when parents are mediating from their home?  A rather interesting discussion ensued, some of which Laura has captured in her posting, along with her own thoughts on this topic:

Laura Luz

While discussing the concept of distance mediation, we – the Legal Information Counsellors at the BC Families in Transition – readily recognized the innovation of bringing mediation to all persons who desired this process.  Yet we also became aware that children could easily “slip through the cracks” in distance mediation.  Parents who are separating may consider it quite a convenience to participate in mediation right from their very homes, yet the responsibility to keep the children away from the close proximity of such an emotional and at times chaotic process becomes even more of a vigilant responsibility.  Let’s explore some relevant aspects.

Time factors
As a mediator, most of my cases have been face-to-face with parties.  This requires that parties drive to and from my office, giving them some “before and after” transition time that acts as a buffer to integrate parties back into routines.  In the distance mediation process, transition time may be eliminated – at least for the parent who has children in their home.  What are the implications of having transition time eliminated?  I remember reading an article about trauma.  Vietnam veterans, because of expanding technology, returned home almost instantaneously.  Without the time to process between the two worlds, adjustment was challenging.  Spouses, children and close friends were observers and sometimes recipients of intense behaviors.

Separation within families is always traumatic. Within traditional mediation, the travel to and from mediation allows for thoughtful processing and preparation before entering back into their children’s world.  Should the mediation session provoke anger, loss, abandonment or sadness, the traveling time can allow a plan to emerge that includes self-care, such as stopping at a friends house for support, going for a walk, or doing errands to allow some time to pass. As mediators, this will be a key area to explore with all families that are requesting mediation using technology in their own homes.

Child care options
Examining further, when the mediation is as close as one’s home, it may become a temptation for a parent to save on babysitting costs.  This may be especially prevalent when there are older children who can supervise the younger ones.  The parent might think “they won’t hear anything while they are playing outside or in the other room”.  Yet, we all know that emotionally charged energy is ever-pervasive and that children are sensors and absorbers of such energy – not to mention their natural curiosity.  Children will make excuses to enter the space where a parent is, should they suspect something significantly emotional is occurring, so interruptions of the process are inevitable unless careful preparation is made for appropriate child care.

The optimal situation is for children to be away from the vicinity of the mediation, but that is not always possible to arrange with work schedules and early bed times of younger children.  As a certified mediator, I am committed to considering “first” the child’s emotional, psychological and physical well-being, so it is my responsibility to sort out all the possibilities with the parent who must plan for the children during mediations.  For example, last year during a distance mediation, I prepared a mother who had three pre-school children.  Even though she had another individual come in to assist while her children were sleeping, they still woke up, and called for “mama”.  Another session required adjournment and rescheduling to another week because the babysitter fell through at the last moment.  Distance mediation doesn’t guarantee that things will go more quickly just because it eliminates the travel time.

Safety concerns
Always a concern is the issue of safety of all family members during mediation.  Safety is screened vigilantly within the frontloading of information through: 1) The initial phone contact, 2) the individual pre-mediation sessions and, 3) the personal judgment of the mediator who decides whether it is safe to mediate.  When considering a distance component, I am even more conscious of my intuitive “gut feelings” around the topic of safety, including how it relates to the children.

It is always wise for a mediator to acquaint themselves with names, phone numbers and email addresses of community professionals within the communities of the children of both parties.  This way, should a situation arise which may require pressing assistance, the mediator is able to make appropriate contacts with immediacy.

Communication
Another consideration is that distance mediation often includes written, asynchronistic communication such as emails, instant messaging or online platforms.  If children are older, and “tech-savvy” (which many are today), the parents must keep their mediation related communications password protected and managed at all times.  This also goes for cell-phone texts.  In my experience, it is a common mistake to leave adult communication where children can view and take in information that they may not be mature enough to fully comprehend.  It is crucial to protect the children’s well-being by keeping the separation and divorce process away from them and to shield them from choosing sides between parents.

Sessions with children
I remember assisting a family where it became necessary to ask the parents if I could speak to their two daughters (who were pre-teens) to establish some clarity in my own mind.  Both parents were happy with my suggestion.  One parent dropped them off at my office, and the other parent picked them up after my information sessions with each daughter.  What I gleaned from my conversations with the girls was vital information to assist the family to move forward.  Both parents were surprised and relieved to understand their children’s needs and desires through a community professional’s words.

There may well come a time when a mediator has the need for clarity though a discussion with the children, should there be two vastly different perspectives being shared by the parents.  An important question, and one yet to be fully answered, is what this would ideally look like in the distance forum.  During these confidential conversations, the parent within the home will need to provide the children with privacy that will allow them to have a genuine and transparent discussion with the mediator.  This will require discipline and trust in the mediation process from the parent who will need to “not listen in” and, furthermore, refrain from asking pertinent questions of the child about “what was said”.

Some common sense guidelines
My posting merely skims the topics I’ve introduced above.  Entire articles could expand on any one topic, which no doubt will be explored by others in the future.  Distance mediation is a pioneer endeavor wherein mediators are learning what the pros and cons are, along the way.  Even so, for the purpose of this submission, I have included some common sense guidelines that I suggest for mediators who are looking to expand their practice into a distance mediation.  Many of the following guidelines could be incorporated within the Agreement to Mediate, as the Distance Mediation Family Project itself has done:

1.  Have each party agree to not have ANY other person within hearing distance when using ANY communication technology that enables participation in the distance mediation process.

2.  Have each party agree that children, in particular, will not be present within hearing distance unless that child will be participating in some way that has been agreed upon by both parents and the mediator.

3.  Have each party agree to protect all access to information regarding the mediation process, including emails, texts, instant messaging, voice-mails, and printed documents which have the adults’ information.  This means parents should have a separate, password-protected email situation.

4.  Get in the habit of letting the two parents know that you will connect briefly with each of them separately via phone contact, subsequent to the end of all joint sessions.  This will ease the transition back into their personal lives and, additionally, the mediator can make suggestions if they sense that there may be some unacknowledged emotional leakage that has resulted.  Questions such as the following can be asked:

  • How do you feel after the mediation?
  • What is your plan to help you “decompress” after the session?
  • Have you sufficient time before the children return to you?
  • Who can you call when you have a need to debrief something?

Children are always the vulnerable ones when two parents separate.  In keeping the children a priority, and considering all repercussions which may negatively impact them, we keep them central to all thoughts and actions.  And keeping the children central ironically means keeping them distinctly AWAY from the distance mediation process… or any separation process, for that matter.

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My thanks go to Laura for her thoughts on this important topic.  You can find some additional suggestions related to this matter in our Distance Mediation Project’s Phase 2 publication, Mediating from a Distance:  Suggested Practice Guidelines for Family Mediators.

NOTE:  Since the publication of this posting, Laura has departed from both the Distance Family Mediation team as well as BC Families in Transition, to pursue her interests in another field.

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