Voice and Support: Programs for Children Experiencing Parental Separation and Divorce


In spite of growing interest in programs that respond to the needs, wishes and concerns of children experiencing parental separation and divorce, there are only a sprinkling of programs and services specifically for children in Canada and other English-speaking countries. Interviews with providers and court officials indicate strong support for programs to help children adjust to their parents' separation and to the subsequent dramatic changes in their lives. Providers and court officials report a strong demand for such programs by parents as well, and too few resources and services to meet the current demand.

Research indicates that the period during family breakdown is the most acutely stressful for children, but that most children's acute stress fades quickly. In addition, most children who experience parental separation or divorce reach adulthood without identifiable psycho-social scars. Overall, research does not show that children's responses to parental separation, or their later responses, are important factors in determining their long-term adjustment.

Nonetheless, researchers have identified "tasks of adjustment" that all children must accomplish to adapt successfully to their parents' separation or divorce. Children who fail to achieve these tasks risk poor long-term outcomes. The research also shows that parents, struggling to adjust themselves to their family's breakdown, often cannot help their children achieve the tasks they need to do during the period of separation, and may hinder them. Many of the existing programs to help children adjust are structured to help children move through these tasks.

Research on the effectiveness of existing programs is limited, and shows only modest direct influence on children's adjustment. However, some experts defend these programs on the grounds that focussing on the children's responses to separation and divorce may still be an effective strategy, given the greater difficulty of influencing parents' attitudes and behaviours. Moreover, even small changes in a child's responses may facilitate the parental adjustment which research shows is very important to the child's long-term adjustment prospects.

Practitioners and researchers are less certain about including children's voices in custody and access proceedings. Canadian court-based mediators rarely include children in mediation, especially younger children, and other mechanisms to convey children's voices, such as custody assessments, are used only in a minority of family disputes in court. A similar situation seems to apply in most other jurisdictions.

However, courts in some provincial jurisdictions are beginning to explore ways to increase the inclusion of children's voices in custody and access proceedings. As well, some provincial jurisdictions have developed programs to provide children involved in certain kinds of proceedings and disputes with a safe indirect way to have their voices heard in decisions.

Practitioners and researchers who oppose including children's voices most often argue that including children harms them, since it may make them feel responsible for decisions, or exposes them to parental anger, retribution, manipulation and more conflict. In some cases, opposition may stem from the view that these decisions are the parents' responsibility.

Relatively few practitioners or researchers appear to support including younger children directly in proceedings, for example, by sitting them down around the mediation table with their parents. Most support inclusion that is indirect, as when children meet separately with the mediator, or when the mediator meets with the parents, child and counsellor after the child has participated in a children's support program. Experts who support children's inclusion also caution that children's expressed wishes and concerns need to be weighed together with other factors, since their wishes and concerns may not always be genuine.

The little research that exists on including children in custody and access mediation indicates that indirect inclusion may not generally harm them and may serve their best interests.

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