I recently watched a new television program focused on a couple divorcing and all that goes with such a life changing event. A particular episode focused on the couple meeting with a mediator in an effort to talk out the issues. Towards the end of the meeting, in a very judgmental tone and with all of the non-verbal cues that go with judgment, the mediator asked how the children were taking the news. When it became clear that the couple had not yet told the children, the mediator indicated that they needed to tell the children right away. This took place without any discussion about how and when this would happen. In fact, the mediator followed up by a straightforward command to “just tell them.” This hit me the wrong way and left me thinking about the process of when to speak to the children about the divorce and the best way to do so.
When a couple begins the divorce process, there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, and it is sometimes difficult to figure out what to handle first. One of the first questions a divorcing couple encounters from third parties is, “Have you told the children yet?” Depending on the couple, the process being used for the divorce and the attorneys, the timeline of talking to the children can vary. Parents often want to focus on child-related issues first out of concern for how the children will handle the transition and the new family structure. How best to bring the children in while keeping them out of the conflict as much as possible needs careful consideration.
In this particular program, the mediator felt that the children should be told immediately. While this may be the type of drama that helps television ratings, it is not necessarily the best approach in real life. It is the parents who usually make the decisions about when to tell the children and what will be said. The parents are most familiar with events happening in each child’s life and how the timing of “the talk” may impact the child. Skilled mediators can facilitate this discussion and bring in practical considerations, or in some cases, appropriate referrals. Sometimes a parenting coordinator or the child’s therapist is consulted. The idea is to reach a unified front on the approach. Every family’s dynamic can be different, and rushing to tell the children before the parent s are prepared can do more harm than good, depending on the children’s ages and maturity levels and other factors in the children’s lives at the time. The parents need to be ready so that the parents’ conflict does not become the children’s conflict.
Most parents want to minimize the level of stress for the children. The mediator, as a neutral, can help the parents engage in a productive conversation centered on maximizing the children’s need for security and the parents’ desire to provide responsive, stable care-giving. The mediator will also facilitate negotiations about parenting plans and decision-making on behalf of the children. Here again, the mediator is a facilitator of the negotiation and there to help the parents generate options and examine the practical effect of such options. A mediator who tries to rush the couple along and remove their decision-making authority will not ultimately help the couple arrive at a fair and reasonable resolution. That type of mediation should remain on the small screen only.
Divorcing parents can benefit from researching the different processes for divorce before choosing the one that suits their needs. Working through a separation and divorce can be hard work. If it is managed carefully it does not have to be harmful for the children. Mediation and Collaborative Law offer an opportunity for parents to work in a cooperative manner with a view towards the family as a whole. An overview of different divorce processes and more about working through conflict can be found on my website.