They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, that's never been more true for me than a mediation I did which involved a lovely nine year old girl - let's call her Debbie. Her mum and dad had been separated quite a long time and both had new partners. Debbie's mum and dad lived in different parts of Yorkshire and, when she went from one house to another, they all met at motorway services. Except they didn't really meet. Both parents remained in their own cars at separate parts of the car park and Debbie walked between the two with her bags.
Conversations with with children
That wasn't what the parents had come to mediation to talk about but, when I got to see Debbie on her own, that's very much what she wanted to talk about. She drew a picture which poignantly illustrated how much she hated the handover at the services. It wasn’t using the services that was the problem – that made sense because of where everyone lived – it was how they used the services and the walk on her own between the two cars that Debbie hated. And knowing that her parents didn’t even look at each other, let alone talk.
With her permission, I showed them the picture and shared Debbie’s thoughts. With this, the parents saw, for the first time, that they had a problem. The good thing was it was a problem that was really easy to resolve. In a follow up mediation with the parents we talked about when Debbie was with her mum and going to her dad’s - then mum and that side of the family would be in the motorway services cafe with Debbie. They would all wait for dad there and he would come in and collect her and vice versa. Sometimes they might even have a cuppa together, if there was stuff about Debbie like school. that they could usefully talk about. And that felt a whole lot more civilised and happier for Debbie.
Children involved directly in mediation isn't them making the decisions. Debbie was never asked who she wanted to live with or how much of her time to spend in each house. But she was asked how she felt and, having been given the space to express her feelings and opinions, she shared this gem.
Working with children in mediation
I can't claim that working with children in mediation will you always result in this blinding flash of insight inspired by the child. Sometimes the children don't say a lot. Another little girl I was working with recently told me that her parents were “doing alright” and, even if she had a magic wand like Harry Potter, there wasn't really anything that she would change about arrangements now they were separated.
Involving older children in mediation also works really well. It can be difficult for teenagers to express themselves and handle all their conflicting emotions (and hormones!) at the best of times and that becomes more amplified in separated families. They definitely have their own voice, their own needs and their own social calendars – which they really want to be heard on. I don't often get them drawing pictures like Debbie – but they are definitely happy to comment and share!!
Divorce and separation affects not just the couple but the whole family. Mediation is a great space to talk about all of the issues that are related to that separation; including pets, school, homework, new partners - you name it, I’ve probably covered it in mediation. Talking (and drawing!) works.
Sarah Smith is an Eminent Practitioner in Family Law and has been supporting separating couples for over 20 years.