Why listen to children?

Sally Clark Blog

20 years ago I was working as a mental health nurse in the adolescent eating disorder unit in a London hospital. It is a well know fact that eating disorders are not about food, but about control. As the re-feeding programme gets underway emotions surface and the real issues come to the fore. Throughout my time on the unit (3 years in total) it struck me how many young people’s trigger for their illness was their parents’ separation or rather the way in which their parents handled it, be that by blaming the other parent, not consulting their children (most of whom were in the early years of senior school) and this lead in turn to a sense of powerlessness. With intensive treatment and family therapy thankfully a high proportion of the young people on that unit recovered. However what struck me is how seriously ill some of those young people were and how badly affected some of them were over their parents’ separation.
Of course not all children and young people go on to develop mental health problems following parental separation and the vast majority of research shows it is not the fact of separation per se but the way separation is handled which is the key issue in determining/influencing how children and young people experience and deal with it going forward. Communication is key. There is nothing worse than feeling powerless and without a voice.
Speaking to children of separating parents is not a whizzy new idea. CAFCASS officers and other professionals have been doing it for years. Various directives and initiatives over the years have emphasised the importance of children having a voice and specially trained family mediators have been able to speak to children again for some time. Mediators who carry out Child Inclusive mediation need to be accredited.
It is important to ensure that the person who is entrusted to speak to children has the requisite skills and practical experience of speaking to children. Put simply you are placing that person in a very privileged position. I have worked with children and young people be that in mental health and then as a family solicitor and mediator for the last 20 years. I never ceased to be amazed about how open and frank young people are with me and often how relieved – and I think that is the right word – they are to speak to someone impartial, not connected to their family unit or school and be able to have that safe space and filter what is and what isn’t fed back to parents (safeguarding issues aside). It really is a privilege and a humbling role.
Family mediation largely involves resolving issues through the power of conversation. Involving children in a sensitive and constructive way as part of that process can be empowering for the family as a whole and leads to successful outcomes in a majority of cases. Of course there are matters which need input from safeguarding professionals and judicial intervention. For a huge number of separating families however listening to each other and to children can unlock issues and enable families to move forward.
For more information about Child inclusive Mediation please contact me now on enquiries@clarkfamilylaw.co.uk or 01423 637272 or 01274 861096.