Question & Aswers about Divorce Mediation

Family Mediation Services

What are the best ways to help children "survive" the divorce?

There are certain basic principles that must be kept in mind in order to limit the negative effects of your divorce on your children:

  • Tell your children together in a gentle, non-argumentative way that you are separating.
  • Reassure them that they are not the reason for the breakup.
  • Don’t express your anger at your spouse to your children; they can be hurt and confused when they hear their parents criticized.

Remember, the most important factor in your children’s adjustment to your divorce is not the type of parenting arrangements you have chosen but the way you as parents conduct yourselves during and after the divorce.

Keep in mind that change is often difficult. We usually adjust to new situations in time, and transitional difficulties are often due primarily to the experience of change rather than to the new situation itself. Think about simple transitions like falling asleep or waking up, or more complex ones like the first day of a vacation or a new job.

  • If you have made parenting arrangements that you and yourspouse feel are in the best interests of your children, stick to the arrangements for a while, even if your children voice objections. Give them time to adjust to the changes. Don’t discuss every detail with the children; rather, explain how things will work in a simple, direct way.
  • Don’t present everything at once, especially to a younger child. Be specific rather than explaining the overall, long-term plan. For example, say, “On Friday, Daddy is picking you up from school and you’ll spend the weekend at his house, and I’11 pick you up from school on Monday.”
  • Most children will ask questions that will guide you regarding what else it is necessary to address: “How will I get Tony music lesson on Saturday?” “What will you do while I’m at Dad’s?” “But I need you to help me with my homework!”
  • Encourage your children to give the new arrangements a try for a specific period of time—a week or even a month depending on their ages and the nature of their objections. Reassure them that you hear their objections and that you will try to modify the plans if they remain unhappy after the trial period.
  • Allow your children to express their feelings about the divorce. Don’t expect your kids to support your decisions immediately. They probably didn’t want you to separate, so don’t expect them to be happy about it or not to object at first when familiar routines are disrupted.
  • If you are moving to a new residence, help your children adjust to the change by letting them assist in choosing the furnishings for an area they will occupy—their bedroom or a special place where they can study. It will make it easier for them to feel at home.
  • If there is a lot of hostility and conflict between you and your partner, the children are more likely to have a difficult time. In that case, the parenting arrangements should be simple, minimizing the contact between the two of you and thus minimizing the exposure of your children to the conflict.
  • If you need to make adjustments due to changes in circumstances, discuss them out of your children’s presence. Then present the new plan calmly and reassuringly to the children.
  • Try to think positively about your future; you will reassure your children by being focused on the future. Make simple plans about things you and your children can do on your own, rather than lamenting and dwelling on what you could have done if the marriage had remained intact.

If after a month or two your children are still very unhappy and voicing difficulties, you may want to consider a consultation with aprofessional who specializes in working with children therapeutically. An experienced therapist can help you evaluate whether your children’s reactions are normal or extreme, and whether some type of intervention is a good idea. Short-term therapy, for example, can help children (and of course a parent as well) through this difficult period.

What can we negotiate in mediation to ensure that my relationship with my children won't be affected by my moving out?

We advise you not to move without a temporary letter of agreement stating that the move won’t be used as a ground for divorce or for any other purpose. Be certain that your temporary agreement provides sufficient details for visitation toestablish your ongoing, continuous, and frequent involvement with your children. See also Question 17 in Chapter 1.

Mediators often hear this concern expressed by noncustodial parents, who fear they will no longer be able to have a close relationship with their children.

Actually, your future relationship with your children will depend on how you continue to relate to them and on how you relate to your former spouse. Your parenting arrangementswill assist you in making a smooth transition.

If you and your spouse tend to argue whenever you meet you will want to minimize contact with one another Perhaps you can agree to pick your childrenup at school or at babysitter’s, and returnthem there. Create parenting arrangements that are clear and detailed, with alternatives spelled out in the agreement for unexpected situations so that you can minimize the reasons to argue over the children’s changing needs. Also see Question 3 in this chapter.

It is important to negotiate a visiting schedule that allows sufficient time to do more than entertain your children. You needtime to do normal activities around your home so that your children will feel they belong there. Plan age-appropriate household tasks and shared activities that you enjoy doing together, and make every effort to remain involved in their activities whenever possible.

How will the type of relationship we have influence our parenting agreement?

Think about these questions:

  • Realistically, knowing each other, what kind of future relationship is possible? How frequently do I want to be in contact about the day-to-day details of our children’s lives?
  • Can I comfortably meet my ex-spouse at parties,school conferences, and other functions importantto my children?
  • What if one of us remarries?

How you feel about these questions will help you decide how detailed you want the agreement to be. Your relationship with your former spouse will change over time. You may get along well now because you are focused on the children, but you may be less cordial once the parenting arrangements are working smoothly— or you may both be more relaxed. Sometimes it’s difficult to predict how things will work out.

If you can get along with each other calmly, most issues can probably be resolved as needed in the future. If you are very argumentative-—a high-conflict couple-most of the details should be clearly spelled out in the agreement, with plenty of alternatives built in to handle irregular situations (illness, business trips, special events, for example) so that you will have minimal need for discussion and decision making.

In one mediator’s experience, the father traveled a lot and wanted to move into the apartment next to his ex-wife’s so he could drop by to see the children whenever he was in town. He thought his wife was being selfish in objecting to this arrangement. When his ex-wife’s feelings we explored, she explained that she didn’t want their children to meet his new girlfriends accidentally, that it would create unnecessary stress for them and for her. The father became more understanding, and agreed to move to another building in the neighborhood so they could all have more privacy.

In contrast, a different mediator worked with a couple who decided to divide their large apartment into two apartments with separate entrance doors, so that their teenage daughter could spend time with each of them when convenient. Since these parents remained quite friendly, they agreed to talk regularly so they could present a united front about discipline and rules. For them, this was an ideal way to remain in daily contact with their daughter even though they were divorced

How do we decide about parenting arrangements (custody and visitation)?

In working out your parenting arrangement in mediation, you will plan how much time your children will spend with each of you and whether both of you will provide a complete household for your children or just a comfortable visiting situation. Equally important, you will plan how decisions affecting your children will be made after the divorce.

Some of the factors you’ll want to consider when negotiating about how your post-divorce family will function include:

  • The best interests of your children
  • Minimal disruption of your children’s routine
  • Relocation of one of you to another state
  • Any special or health-related needs of your children
  • The age and sex of your children
  • Your children’s preferences
  • The past relationship of your children with each of you
  • Your ability to cooperate with each other, which determines how flexible the arrangements can be

Since mediation focuses on creating the best parenting arrangements, you should become familiar with some of the legal terms the courts may use to describe the elements of your arrangements with your children. Within these categories, each specific issue (such as decisions about school, the timing of visits, for example) can be negotiated in mediation:

  • Joint custody — you share both physical custody and legal custody (decision making). Joint physical custody doesn’t necessarily mean equal time. Your children may spend as little as one-third of their time with you and two-thirds with your former spouse, depending on your schedules, the ages of your children, and the location of your home.
  • Sole physical custodyandjoint legal custody – one of you has sole physical custody, and you share custody for the purpose of decision making.
  • Sole custody – one of you has sole physical and legal custody and the other has specific times for visits. You may agree to share certain decisions, such as those about schooling, religious training, and medical care.
  • Split custody — each parent has physical custody of at least one of the children.

Also, different states have different practices. For example, in Texas, parents are usually “Joint Managing Conservators” of their child, and instead of ordering “visitation,” Texas issues a “Standard Possession Order,” which describes “periods of possession.” The child visits the “possessory conservator.” In Ohio, the term “shared parenting” is used instead of “joint custody.” In Pennsylvania, the courts use the words “partial custody” todescribe overnight visitation. In New Jersey, visitation is now called “parenting time.”

Our children will have different needs as they mature. What changes can we expect and how can we anticipate these changes in our parenting plan?

The details of your parenting plan will vary over time in order to accommodate your children’s developmental changes. Revisionsmay be necessary and can be made formally in your mediation agreement, informally as needed, or through occasional meetings with your mediator during which the changes are decided and formalized.

These are some basic developmental principles to keep in mind that will help you formulate a written agreement that meets your family’s unique needs:

  • Infants need to get to know both of you as intimately as possible. Physical contact is important-bathing them, holding them, talking to them. They need you to be attuned to their needs, and you can only develop that attunement by taking care of them and learning their special ways. They will show you the way if you give them your attention and really interact with them.
  • Preschoolers can talk, so it is easier to know what they want, but they are still very fragile and dependent. They do better with relatively brief visits, and they need safety and routines. Transitions cannot be rushed, from one of you to the other, or even from situation to situation with the same parent (for example, going out to the park or going to bed). In these situations the preschooler may feel insecure and may cry or become resistant unless you take your time.
  • School-age children need a lot of respect and consideration for their interests and activities. They can make changes more easily, but they need time to rest, to focus on theiractivities, to ask questions, and to be affectionate and lovingwith you.
  • Preteens are generally more independent, but they still are very much in need of your cooperation, guidance, and support.
  • Adolescents want to be very independent, but they need consistent parenting from both of you. They need you to be flexible concerning visitation schedules if they have special activities that are important to them, though they may have difficulty giving you the same consideration. They need privacy and access to their friends, and they need you to provide the time, and structure for them to attend to their schoolwork and responsibilities.

See also Question 1: What are the best ways to help children “survive” the divorce?

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