“Do I and my spouse need to be in the same room if we go the mediation route for our children?”
There are many advantages to having both parents in the same room while mediating parenting plans.
Firstly, much of mediation work in developing parenting plans involves education. I think it is important to start with the academic literature in order to understand age-appropriate residential schedules, and the grieving process that children and adults experience. If both parents are hearing the same conversation at the same time, exchanging opinions with each other, and looking for feedback together, this makes sense. This makes the education process for the parents enriching instead of a solitary experience, which may lead to misinterpretations and more conflict.
Secondly, besides determining specific times that each parent spends with the children, developing a parenting plan involves the complicated task of developing a new way for ex-spouses to communicate about the continuing needs of their children, along with what should stay consistent between homes. Where trust has been eroded and stresses increased, communication is usually a very difficult task for newly separated parents. It is through meeting together that the parents can begin to restructure communication that will work for them long-term, with the dual goals of eliminating outside professional intervention (and the costs incurred) and upholding the number one goal for helping children cope through divorce: eliminating high conflict between parents.
If the clients are in shuttle mediation (not present together), there is no opportunity to help them develop and practice communication so they can best continue to use the “co” in co-parenting. It is an important part of healing where the parents can show mature modeling of how divorced parents can act for their children, instead of maintaining dysfunctional marital dynamics, which is discouraging and depressing to both children and parents post-marriage.
Thirdly, with emotional safety being secured in mediation, the clients are much more willing and able, over time, to give the much needed acknowledgements to each other, which lead to forgiveness and healing. All of this is transferred to helping both parents and children grieve thoroughly, instead of staying stuck in the past. When successful grieving is very actively practiced together in mediation, it gives both parents and children the abilities to move forward well.
Fourthly, very frequently, the parents want some advice and feedback regarding parenting concerns that were present — perhaps before the separation, or have developed because of the separation. So, having the parents hear the same feedback together and implement strategies that are consistent in both homes is in the children’s best interests. It also allays fears that parents typically have that they may not be supported by the other parent in resolving these issues. This sets the foundation for joint decision-making, if that is the agreed upon mechanism. There is much discussion among clients and professionals as to when joint decision-making is effective. It has become obvious that ex-spouses who cannot be civil to each other after separation have little chance of successful joint decision-making. It is in mediation that we can work towards seeing if this possibility has a chance, as both clients are present to hear how this may work quite effectively. But they have to be together, and work through how to listen effectively and respectfully to each other. These skills take much practice, motivation and support.
Developing a parenting plan looks at the whole family dynamic, and each family is unique and complex in its own way. Learning how to separate and heal from the pre-separation dynamics are very complicated tasks, which can be best achieved with both parents motivated to attend together if they are both going to be actively involved in their children’s lives.
Risa Ennis is a family mediator and the founder of Taming Your Ego. Risa has a love for self-esteem building, peacekeeping. Negotiating and helping people grieve appropriately. She has experience dealing with traumatic divorce from the age of 19. What she does best is helping children through the transition during divorce. She can be reached at (416) 636-2946.