The pain and anxiety experienced by parents when their relationship breaks down is often compounded by concerns about the impact on their children. During a time of emotional distress, child inclusive mediation can help parents to keep their children’s needs at the forefront of their decision-making.

The recommendation that all children aged 10 years and above should have their opinions heard was outlined in the ‘Voice of the Child’ report produced by the Dispute Resolution Advisory Group in 2015. Children have the right to see both parents, as long as it is safe for them to do so, and they should not be made to feel guilty about wanting to spend time with either parent.

Classic family mediation (which involves a separating couple working together to make decisions about their financial and child arrangements) is a well-known concept, yet child inclusive mediation remains shrouded in mystery and is frequently misunderstood. Many parents are suspicious of the process, believing that the mediator will interrogate their child and ask them to commit to living with a particular parent. Another common scenario is one parent pre-empting their child’s needs and insisting that their child wouldn’t want to live with the other parent. I reassure parents that child inclusive sessions are friendly, informal meetings with only the children and the mediator present and their children will be given the opportunity to air their views rather than make decisions about future arrangements. Interference from either parent is actively discouraged. If parents decide to go ahead with CIM, I contact the children via email or social media to ask for their permission to meet.

During the CIM session, children are able to discuss their family situation and any proposed changes to their living arrangements. The freedom to express their views to someone completely neutral may be a huge relief since conversations with parents about the separation can be fraught with guilt. Children tend to say what they think a particular parent wants to hear to avoid hurting them. In addition, they might feel torn between their parents, especially if one parent is leaning on them for emotional support. Many separating couples are also under the illusion that their children are oblivious to their relationship issues. My experience as a child inclusive mediator suggests that this is not the case. Children are very adept at noticing problems and would like their parents to let them know what is happening.

Although parents are not in attendance during the CIM session, their input is crucial when planning the meeting, providing essential background information about their children’s likes and dislikes to ensure they feel at ease with me. When meeting with children, it is important to choose a place where there is privacy and where the children are comfortable. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have arranged to meet children outdoors, for a picnic on the South Downs or a dog-walk at Nymans. If there is more than one child, I meet them together initially, then individually, starting with the youngest child. Drinks and snacks are an essential part of the process – children are usually more relaxed when nibbling.

Parents are advised not to put any pressure on the children or to question them before or after the CIM session. The conversations children have with me are in confidence. It is up to the children to decide what, if anything, they would like me to feed back to their parents. A feedback meeting is typically scheduled for the same day. No written report is made, but I am able to relay the wishes of the children to their parents to help them make informed decisions about their post-separation lives. I always have a final feedback session with the children to thank them for meeting with me and to let them know if their parents have agreed any arrangements. Follow-up sessions can be organised to meet the changing needs of the family: circumstances alter over time and as children grow into young adults, their opinions and requirements evolve too.

Linda Lamb