Divorce, Child Psychology and your Family Mediation Process

Una Archer Child Psychologist
Louis Whitney
Louisa Whitney Family Mediator

This article looks at how using child psychologists along side the mediation process can help parents to achieve the best possible outcomes for their children when they separate.

Separation is a hard process for an adult to go through – especially where it comes unexpectedly.

Being able to look after your own well being and equipping yourself to make important decisions can be too much for some adults to manage at times.

Trying to help children make sense of the change and their relationship with both parents is something many parents can struggle to manage. In the same way that clients need expert help to make the right decisions about financial matters, they can also need expert help to assist them in supporting their children during this transition.

When a couple start to look at how they will resolve issues relating to money, children and possessions, a sticking point in making arrangements can often be differing views about children.

The two parties may have different perceptions about how their child, or children, are coping with the separation.

They may feel that different arrangements would work best. They may even have fundamental differences about the way that they parent their children. In some cases these differences have been a contributing factor in the breakdown of the relationship.

Whatever the issues it’s important to remember that children experience the same relationship breakdown as their parents.

Children are half of each parent, and it hurts them when they hear their parents making rude comments to or about each other – or becoming angry with each other.

As Resolution members are aware, in recent studies (publicised as part of DR week) one of the greatest frustration of children and young people was not being heard during their parents’ separation – and not having what was happening explained to them.

A child psychologist can help parents to become more in tune with the needs of their children during this difficult time.

your Family Mediation Process This article explains how using the services of a child psychologist, along side parents attending mediation to find a resolution, can be most useful. This may, or may not, be coupled with parents seeing solicitors to obtain advice during the mediation process.

It can take time following a separation for parties to feel able to start thinking about what happens next.

It is not unusual for one party to feel they have come to terms with the relationship breakdown more quickly and to want to focus on the next steps, whilst the other party is still struggling to process what has happened.

It is important that both parties work at a pace that they can both work within.

A mediator will be mindful of this and incorporate this into the process and timetable. Parties can see a mediator as soon as they feel able to talk about the situation.

A mediator will usually start with an individual meeting with each party. In that meeting they will explain how mediation works and the different ways in which you can move forward. Assuming mediation is a suitable process, the parties can then move to having joint meetings – although they may leave a period of time before the first meeting, to enable them to either gather information together, or to feel more able to deal with the joint sessions.

Sometimes the parties are not able to make progress in mediation because they are overwhelmed by their emotions.

Una explains that the parties may feel scared or threatened. This does not mean that either party is threatening the other; just that they find the situation they are in threatening.

Having to contemplate more formal arrangements to parent their children, trying to ascertain whether the children will be safe to stay with their ex, feeling overwhelmed by the thought that this will adversely affect their children for life – any one of those concerns can seriously undermine their sense of security and trigger a “fight, flight or freeze” response.

This response initiates quick action for the best chance of survival in situations that are perceived as dangerous. It can vary in its strength. If the reaction is mild the client may look anxious, on the edge, or distant or withdrawn.

Here are a few suggestions that might help to defuse it within the mediation session:

  • Slow down
  • Repeat, or ask both parties to repeat what has just been said
  • Acknowledge what is happening: ‘This is a very sensitive issue and talking about it may be hard. We will go at the pace you are feel comfortable with’
  • Have a comfort break
  • Reduce the amount of documents on the desk

Here a few examples of a stronger ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response:

  • Experiencing strong immediate reactions where there is no space for dialogue or compromise
  • Refusing to deal with or acknowledge the situation such as ignoring phone calls, emails, or not being prepared to discuss issues in any way.
  • A person freezes and is unable to take in information or process issues and make decisions.

Where one or both parties experience this reaction, it can make it difficult for mediation to continue – or for there to be constructive dialogue about the issues.

A child psychologist can be helpful in assisting clients with resolving this reaction by:

  • Helping the party or parties to re-engage with their ability to regulate their emotions, reflect and examine the issue from different perspectives and be flexible, creative and empathetic.
  • Helping parents to understand what their children need to adjust to their particular situation. Narrowing the focus to just a few key areas can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and provide the parents with the comfort of knowing they can help their children.
  • Creating a clear action plan to enable parents to be more present with their children.

This, in turn, enables them to return to mediation and to make progress with shaping the resolution that they think will serve them, and their children, best going forwards.

your family mediation processA child psychologist can also work with parents in the later stages when they are looking to implement the plan that they have put together in mediation.

This might be once they have physically separated and moved into separate houses and are now sharing care of their children.

It can be a huge transition for all involved to live as two separate households and to implement a plan that was only theory when it was discussed in mediation.

A newly separated parent can feel exposed and uncertain in some areas of parenting.

There might be situations that an ex partner used to deal with that a parent now has to tackle themselves. Una has a more positive outlook on this as a chance to take stock of what is happening in their relationship with their child at that moment. Having the opportunity to invest time and energy into creating a really solid relationship with their child, that they are both happy with, can be a life defining journey that can enhance their bond forever.

A child psychologist can help parents to develop a clear understanding of what their child needs from them and how they can meet those needs. It can also assist parents in helping their child (or children) to:

  • Trust they can share their thoughts and feelings with their parents
  • Feel comfortable in their own skin – understood, accepted, important, safe and loved
  • Have lasting friendships
  • Enjoy and fully engage in their learning – whatever their interests are

This gives them confidence in their role as a parent – in a way that they may not have had during the marriage. How often do parents feel “I’m not good enough” or that “my child is asking for more than I can give”?

It also empowers parents to rewire patterns that may have existed in their family for generations.

Those patterns influence their unspoken agreements about how much affection, support, acceptance, space, and respect one can expect in a relationship.

By working with a child psychologist the party, or parties, can work out what relationship they, as a parent, will have with their child going forwards and how they can bring it to life and make it their everyday reality.

This enables families to move forward to a new chapter where they will be living separately but still working individually and together to make sure their children are happy, healthy and thriving.

About Una and Louisa

Una Archer MBPsS is a child psychologist helping divorcing parents to soften the impact of their separation on their children.

She works to help parents understand what they need to do so that their children feel just as loved, secure and comfortable in their own skin as they did before the separation – and sometimes even more so.

Louisa Whitney practised as a family law solicitor for approximately 10 years before also qualifying as a family mediator.

Three years ago she set up her own mediation practice in Surrey and now works as a family mediator full time.

She is passionate about helping separating couples find a resolution that’s tailor made to them and their family.  For more information about her mediation practice visitwww.lkwfamilymediation.co.uk


  1. Glad to read an article on the benefits of having a child psychologist onboard during divorce. In the States, it is very common to have a child psychologist on the collaborative divorce team and the title is “Interim Child Psychologist.” They set up and monitor visitation during proceedings. They refer the children to a therapist if need be, but don’t do any in depth therapy themselves. Just listen and deal with small issues that arise for the kids during divorce. If abuse is discovered, then they are right on the spot to deal with it through appropriate channels.

    • It would be great if divorce firms or divorce lawyers would indeed include child psychologists or parenting specialists on their teams. After all they are dealing with a real people whose lives are going through major transitions not just in the legal sense but emotionally and mentally too. Positive parenting at this time is simply challenging so professional help and guidance from a psychological perspective could help parents make very informed decisions.

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