During Good Divorce Week, Resolution’s annual campaign, the focus is on reducing conflict for children during separation and divorce where they are often caught in the middle.
Juliette Dalrymple, a mediator from Family Matters sat down with Siobhan Newton, a solicitor in Langley’s family department in York to talk about ways in which separating parents can work together to keep the situation as positive as possible for the children, and the support Family Matters can offer to parents.
At Family Matters you offer both family mediation and the Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP). Firstly, could you explain briefly for those that don’t know, what mediation actually is?
Yes, family mediation is the opportunity for separated people to go through an organised series of meetings which will lead to an agreement.
That agreement can be written up into something called a ‘memorandum of understanding’, or a ‘parenting plan’ if there are children involved.
If necessary, these can then be taken to a solicitor and made legally binding. So, from mediation you can get a document that formalises your thoughts and ideas about your situation.
And what about the SPIP?
A SPIP is a course which has been designed by CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).
It’s a four hour course which focuses on empowering parents, helping them to recognise the effect of their situation, whether it’s arguments or conflict, on their children and it talks about ways in which conflict can be reduced.
We know from research that conflict has a direct effect on children’s mental health, educational achievement and even prospective relationships in the future and the course looks to find ways to avoid this impact.
Do you need to have been to court to attend the SPIP course?
No, you can go to a SPIP before court. It’s something which Family Matters offers for a fee of £75 which covers the whole cost of the course.
For those who come on the course, the main piece of feedback we get is “I wish I’d come on this earlier.” Attending the course earlier in the process means you have all that information and knowledge to make better decisions about arrangements for the children as soon as possible.
When would you recommend that parents attend this course?
As soon as possible after separation. We see people who are at the end of the court process and it’s sometimes the last thing the court does before it closes the case.
They all say, without exception, that they wish they’d come on the course weeks, months, even years earlier in some cases.
It can even be the case that some people feel they are getting on ok after their separation but they haven’t actually considered issues like what will happen when they get into a new relationship or what the arrangements would be if one of the parents becomes seriously ill. So, talking about those issues earlier on in the process means that you can have plans in place for the future.
When you’re in the middle of a difficult situation which might be an emergency, perhaps a bereavement, that’s the worst time to try to think clearly and constructively about how to problem solve.
If parents have attended a SPIP and still need support, what would you recommend?
Part of the SPIP involves signposting to other resources. Of course I’ll always suggest attending a mediation assessment and information meeting or MIAM , because part of the role of that meeting is identifying whether there are issues of depression or domestic abuse and putting safeguards in place.
This usually means the process will be much more successful and people will leave with a lot more information which is empowering and helps make everything feel less overwhelming.
What most surprises parents who attend the SPIP course?
I think that many of them are surprised right from the start that we’re not going to tell them off and that we recognise that they are good parents in a difficult situation.
Often they’re surprised that we give them information in a way that doesn’t judge them and doesn’t make them feel as if they’ve made mistakes or done something wrong.
They’re also surprised that change is possible. Very often parents leave feeling very hopeful and optimistic for the future which often they didn’t expect.
Do you have any advice for parents when they first separate and emotions are running high?
I think I should probably correct a misconception in that mediators don’t give advice. We really give people information. If I give advice it means I’m taking a side, and mediators are neutral.
We say to people that if they want specific advice they need to speak to a solicitor. What we can do is give information about the effects of divorce and separation, what works and how to do things differently.
What works in terms of separating is to try and understand that you are going through a grief and loss process for that relationship and that people involved will be at different stages.
One person may have been thinking about, planning and preparing for the separation for a lot longer than the other person. For the person who is further along the process, it’s important to be aware that the other person won’t be on the same page. You can’t expect them to be.
It goes back to very basic words, like being ‘kind’ and being ‘considerate’. Not treating the other person as someone you are in a close personal relationship with, because that has now ended.
Try to treat the other person with respect and kindness, in the same way as you would at work. With a work colleague, you don’t have to like people or have the same views as them, but you do have to treat them with respect, be polite and be punctual. You might not feel like it but it’s the best way to behave for your child. A child needs their parents to have as constructive a relationship as possible.
Often a child may express a wish to remain living with one parent or feel angry towards another parent – perhaps the parent that has left the family home. How best can parents work together to deal with this?
I think that you can recognise that, if it’s immediately after the separation, the child is likely trying to reassure, comfort and make one parent feel better and that’s not a child’s responsibility. That’s the parent’s responsibility.
I would recommend that separating parents keep the issue between themselves. Not grandma, granddad, aunties, uncles, new parents and ex partners. The more people that are involved, the higher the bonfire gets.
Yes it’s difficult and painful, yes it’s hard work, but it’s work that needs to be done if you’re going to get to the ultimate goal, which is your child being well adjusted. In most cases I see, that’s what parents want for their children.
If a child says; ‘I want to live with you mummy/daddy’, remember that the child is trying to influence the situation and yes, of course you listen but you don’t necessary follow what they say.
When children say things sometimes parents take it at face value and that’s not always best for the child. They need to be given an expectation and have input into the decision making, but not to be put in charge.
We often see parents when they are unable to reach an agreement on arrangements for the children, do you have three tips for helping parents to reach an agreement?
That’s a really interesting question. Restricting it to three is very difficult but I think I would say firstly, if parents are planning to separate, that they come to mediation. If they can’t or don’t want to, they should try and meet in a neutral place, not the family home.
Secondly, try and agree expectations for each other’s behaviours, such as not making personal accusations or sticking to arranged times.
Thirdly, I would encourage taking a business-like approach to it. Try and prepare and think ahead of time and bring something constructive to the discussion. This can lead to more options and a more creative approach to arrangements, which benefit the child
For a free initial appointment with one of our specialist family mediation team to discuss issues such as separation, divorce or arrangements for the children, please do not hesitate to get in touch here or call us on 03300 881440