A few years ago, I read “Far from the Tree: Children and the Search for Identity”, a book about exceptional children and how parenting them changed their parents’ lives and identities. The children in Andrew Solomon’s book are profoundly different from their parents, and from many in society, but the experience of parenting them reframes the world, and bring their parents’ humanity to the surface. 

Many people struggle to focus on parenting.  Canadians, and most people in developed countries, have a great deal of pressure during their child-raising years, with jobs, aging parents and social expectations. 

For separating couples, the core of the parenting discussion is often standard parenting issues: schooling, sports, discipline and routine.   Planning for post separation parenting is a key activity of mediation, including both the schedule and details of how the children will be cared for.  There may be obvious approaches based on the children’s ages and stages of development, and the pre-separation parenting pattern, but a parenting plan is not always easy to achieve.

A standard approach may not work for exceptional children; some children need resources and supports just to function day to day. Some kids are deeply sensitive to changes in their environments and others are dependent on the care of one or two key people, with others playing a more minor role. For some families, the care of one or more exceptional children has been the main source of conflict and strain, and the post separation care of these children could be a flashpoint in mediation.

The challenge for mediators and arbitrators is to remember that all children are exceptional; their exceptionality is only a matter of degree. We can sometimes fall into the trap of using shorthand to think about children: he’s an outgoing athletic type; she has ADHD and is withdrawn; they love Pokémon and struggle with school etc. And under pressure to decide adult issues (when to sell the house; how to split the pensions) we can be drawn to an easy or routine parenting plan. Some parents want the plan to be “fair” to the adults, without thoughts about how a such a plan may transform the child’s life. Some parents seek to limit an  ex-spouse’s time with children to punish or account for “blame” for the end of the marriage. Our role is to refocus these clients on the children, and not themselves.

Ideally, to make the best plan, each parent should be present, or in the moment, of each child’s life right now. Encourage parents to think about their children’s needs, their struggles, their friends and their routine.  Have a frank discussion with parents about their children’s relationships with siblings, relatives, school and other communities. To prepare to have a focused parenting mediation session, each parent may want to spend an evening alone with each child and casually talk to them about school, friends, sports, what they are reading and the games they are playing.  

When parents separate, kids can be sad or angry; It takes effort from the parent (who may be depleted themselves by anger or sadness)  to try to deflect children from laying blame: on a parent who had an affair, or on a difficult sibling. 

As dispute resolution professionals we all give parents advice: don’t ask a child where or with whom they want to live; but if the separation comes up reassure them that you and the other parent are working together, and you know that living apart will bring changes in all of your lives. We can ask clients to use their empathy and imagine for a few minutes being that child.  What would they want from their parent – likely presence and acknowledgement that they are an unique person and not a point of contention.

If the client’s own parents separated when they were a child, they may have an understanding of what helped them. Alternatively, they  may have a model of behaviour that they do not want to repeat. But remember, if clients had a separation in their family of origin, may be responding to their own separation in an emotional way, and need support to respond to their own unresolved emotional needs.  Urge parents to be cautious about generalizing from their own experience, because their child may be experience separation in a very different way.

When you mediate, help clients bring their present understanding of the child to the table.  Children relate differently to each parent, so give space for each parent to express their view of the children and their needs.  And then build a plan that’s about the child, their needs, and their routines. Like the parents in “Far from the Tree” see if you can lead clients to show their humanity and understanding. 

Anne Marie Predko is a lawyer and mediator and the owner of Round Table Mediation.  In addition to mediation services, she also offers limited scope legal services. She can be reached at ampredko@roundtablemediation.ca 

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