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How best to support and include your children following parental separation — Collaborative Conversations

April 28, 2021 Podcast

Everyone wants to know about the impact separation has on kids and how they can lessen that impact. Child Consultant, Bianca Roche-Bolger explains how a child inclusive approach within the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice framework assists families to ensure kids are heard and not forgotten during separation.


(HOST) I’m Wallace Long. Welcome to Collaborative Conversations, a podcast looks into the interdisciplinary, collaborative practise approach for separating couples. In this episode, I speak with Child Consultant BIANCA ROCHE-BOLGER. Separation is a challenging time for everyone. And when kids are involved, as special approach is required, Bianca shares with us the needs of children, what parents can do to help their kids at this time and how by incorporating a child inclusive process within the ICP framework, provides a better outcome for kids.

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practise is a process where, in conjunction with each party’s lawyer, couples work alongside professionals who bring the skills required to resolve each family’s unique situation in an efficient, respectful and dignified way. The Collaborative Conversations Podcast is brought to you by the Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals.

Bianca, welcome.

(BIANCA) Hi, Wallace.

(HOST) I’m looking forward to hearing about your role as a child consultant within the ICP process. Can I start by asking about parents and separation and what is on their minds when it comes to their children at this time?

(BIANCA) Well, I think there can be so many things that are on parents’ minds at times of separation, particularly regarding their children. And I think depending on how the separation actually has happened for parents that can make a big difference as to where they’re at in terms of their focus on their kids.

For some parents, they’ve been able to make that decision to separate in a calm, respectful way. They may have even already worked through plans for their children and how it’s going to be for their children in advance of telling their kids about the separation. And for those parents and in those situations, there can be a lot less worried and less angst about everything that’s to come.

That’s not very often. More likely a separation is something that can happen to one person, sometimes by surprise, and other times it is something that somebody really wants and they’re pushing forward for, so depending on whether it is something that’s happened to you, or you’re advocating for it that can again really change where your mindset is at as an adult for where your children need to be as well.

But the biggest thing that does come through is that parents worry for their kids. They worry about how to tell their children that a separation is going to happen and worry about children blaming themselves, worrying about children not feeling loved, worrying that children will feel that there’s something they can do to fix things. And likewise, though they often are worried about what will the plans be for their family and for their children moving forward? There’s often a lot of questions because it is a time of vulnerability, of high risk, of uncertainty because that they don’t know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to be experienced and felt by everybody. Parents themselves can be in a state of fear, of concern, going through a series of questions around, you know, where will their children be living? How will they spend time? They may be worrying about will they stay together as a sibling unit? Will they have to cross Sydney?

What will be affordable in terms of schooling and extracurricular activities? Who will be in their life, who will remain in their life, or will children stay living in the same state or country. So the sense of what will happen following a separation and the unknown about that can really add to where parents are at in terms of their mindset.

(HOST) Bianca, you speak of the great uncertainty for families during separation. How do you help them navigate through when there is so much uncertainty?

(BIANCA) First of all, really recognising with the adults that you’re working with, that the separation is a time of grief for themselves but for their children as well, and helping parents who are grieving the change to their own roles and identities but change to their interpersonal relationship and acknowledging that, that is part of their own lost dreams and hopes for their relationship and their family is a good place to start.

But as soon as you can do that, as soon as you can try to give parents as much encouragement and validation of the big emotions they’re having, for one thing you can really do is try to move them as quickly as possible to focusing on their children’s experience. And yes, it is a time of great uncertainty and grief for adults, but particularly for children, it is an ending of the life and the home that they’ve known. And the difficulty with that often for children, is when they are finding out that things are changing in their home structure in their parents’ relationship, in what family has been to them, parents at that time are often not at their best, totally understand that for adults at that time to be in a state of grief themselves, or a worry, or wanting to move on very quickly, but their capacity at the time to really put themselves in their children’s shoes can be quite limited.

Part of helping them is to put their children into the conversation as quickly as possible and tapping into the parent that you’re working with, the parent that they want to be, the parent that they are have been previously and identifying how do we now recreate a new relationship for you as parents moving forward, not as partners. And where parents are able to start focusing on their children, they can start to be more motivated in terms of being more available to their children, keeping things on the children’s agenda and looking forward to, how can we now redefine what this family of ours is going to be like.

Part of my role as a child consultant is to do that, is to help parents within an interdisciplinary collaborative process, to yes, acknowledge their pain and distress and their hopes and their needs, but as quickly as possible to bring it back to their children’s agenda and their experience, and not to minimise the parents experience, but to help them channel that energy towards what their children really need. And it can be hard for parents to do at that time, but most parents really want to be able to do that.

(HOST) Bianca, you’ve mentioned the importance of acknowledging where parents are at and moving as quickly as possible to have them focus on their kids. Can you describe what a child inclusive process looks like within an Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach?

(BIANCA) So, I mean, where anybody can be doing a good mediation out there might be very child focused in their approach, a child inclusive process, particularly one where it’s involved in an Interdisciplinary Collaborative process, is one where children are directly consulted with as part of the collaborative practice.

It’s a process where the lawyers and the coach who make up the collaborative team would make a suggestion to the parents for them to consider meeting with the child consultant. And the consultant would then meet separately with each of the parents to talk to them about where their children are at right now in terms of the separation, what their worries might be for their children and what their thoughts might be around in having a consultation with their children.

The child consultant would then make a time to meet with the children of that family, usually as a sibling group, and to then spend some part of one on one assessment. The consultant, when they’re meeting with the kids, is very much looking at, you know, how does this child feel in their family right now? What is preoccupying them about their families’ separation? What’s worrying them? What might they be needing from their relationship with both their parents? And what are their hopes moving forward?

The consultant at that time is very much doing an assessment on how the child might be experiencing their parents’ relationship and experiencing their parents’ conflict. And looking at from a strengths based point of view, what strategies that child might be using in accordance to their age and stage of development and the personality that they have. The consultant would then, after meeting with the children, spend time with the parents again and do a feedback session. And the coach from the collaborative process attends that session too.

And during that feedback session it’s really designed to try to be a conversation together with the consultant, the parents and the coach to, or looking at where the children are at that snapshot at time. What the consultant may have wondered about where possible themes or concerns coming up, what strategies the consultant might have felt the children were using and whether or not those strategies were protective or of concern. And I guess, finally, in that feedback session really helping parents to narrow them down. Well, what now might be needed in terms of decision making an arrangement so that in the collaborative decision making process that the children’s real needs can be at the heart of any agreements and decisions made.

It is a process where because the consultant is trying to work with parents, being the decision makers and the parents being the ones to know what’s best for their children, that the consultant doesn’t become the expert in that space. But the consultant can start to really motivate the parents to work together, both within the collaborative process but in terms of their relationship moving forward as well.

(HOST Bianca, what can parents do to help their children at this time?

(BIANCA) There are so many things that parents can do to help their children. And parents just to know a couple of things they can do can help breathe some calmness and relief back into the equation because the over whelm around not knowing what to do is often very obvious and very common.

The first thing that they can do, and it’s something that research tells us time and time again is that they can provide their children with information about what’s happening for them.

There’s been studies done over the last 2-3 years, and that is what comes through from what children need themselves when interviewed, that they would like information about the changes to their family, about what might be happening, about what to expect. They really need what’s called a separation story. So a united message from both of their parents, ideally around what’s happening to their family. A little bit about the why, but of course not the adult issues, not the adult detail. They don’t need to be loaded up on the ins and outs of their parents’ relationship, breakdown or betrayals or conflict, but they do need to be able to be given a message about this is what happened to their family. And this is what will be moving forward for their family with as much reassurance, positivity and structure as possible.

So information about what is happening in that developmental way and in small chunks, you don’t want to overload children with this sort of information, and it’s questions that they might ask again and again of parents, so having a bit of a narrative at that early time can really be empowering for children and really help alleviate some concerns.

The second thing parents can do is they can consider whether their children are old enough and, you know a child inclusive process is designed for children from ages five and up to give their children a voice within the times of change within either a collaborative process or a mediated process. It is very much saying that children are not the decision makers at a time of change and transition for their family. They are not there to decide who they love more and who they want to live with. That is not what children, from when they’re asked, actually want to do. They want to leave that decision making in the hands of their parents, but having an opportunity to be consulted, to be thought about to be given that special space can have a very empowering experience for children, so long as they’re listened to, so long as they are attended to. But giving them a voice really validates them as humans and people within their family, and can be a very powerful process for everybody moving forward.

A third thing that parents can do is they really can resource children with other people who can help them. As flagged before a separation is a higher time of expressed emotion for parents, it’s a time of grief, a time of confusion and where parents are often not best versions of themselves. Often their ability to then parent at a time of recent separation is also limited because they’re in conflict and they’re in their own state of emotional distress.

And so supporting their children with others, other adults who might be just functioning in a slightly calmer way, a more reflective way. People that the children then feel they don’t have to look after themselves. People that can be really helpful for them, whether that’s a lovely school counsellor or a child psychologist, if needed, whether it’s extended family, a good neighbour, sporting instructor, a teacher that’s been there for years in that child’s life. Other adults that children trust that can be there for them can really be powerful in terms of support for them moving forward.

A fourth thing that parents can do is look after themselves. And absolutely we know that children cannot recover from a separation until parents recover themselves. So parents being a little bit selfish, attending to their own emotions, getting counselling if they need counselling, getting advice if they need advice, looking at healthy living habits that they can do, you know, being aware of their own emotional responses. And doing something about that means that they are then going to have a better capacity to parent, a better capacity to reflect on that where their children are at and then a capacity to then be available to their children to then come to them for that parenting and support and nurturing that kids need from parents. So looking after themselves, totally vital.

And then finally, I think that what parents really can do is work out a way as quickly as possible on how they’re going to be able to communicate together in a respectful, calm, child focused way as possible. And this is the hard piece to do. But it’s the most important piece because if parents can work out a way of communicating about their children they’re going to have a higher chance of being able to keep conflict away from their children.

(HOST) Bianca, is it ongoing conflict between parents that is most damaging to children?

(BIANCA) That is what the research has shown us time and time again over the decades that whether adults are staying together as a couple or whether they’re separating it’s that indication of the emotional environment around the children is the biggest predictor of their own mental health outcomes. And where that atmosphere might be highly conflictual, and whether that’s very high, expressed emotion, of a lot of anger or a lot of sadness, or even at times where it’s a real Cold War and there’s no communication happening at all. In those situations for children, whether they’re living with parents together and their modelling that, or parents who are separated, that’s where children feel the load of conflict on them. And it’s at those points that children then start using strategies to step in and manage their environment. They step in to manage their parents’ relationship. They step into becoming sometimes the parents if they can’t trust that their parents can manage this for them.

And so, looking at the conflict between the adult, working out ways of encapsulating it, keeping it away from kids completely realistic to expect conflict will be there. This is about a relationship breakdown and change. It wouldn’t be right without conflict and actually modelling to children how to manage conflict is very protective and really important in terms of their own life skills. But if they are experiencing high conflict, that doesn’t get resolved for long periods of time, and where it then breathes into every being of their child’s interactions for as they move from one parent to another, or one home to another, those children are the ones the research tells us don’t do so well long term. They have higher rates of risk taking behaviours, of mental health, concerns of anxiety, of depression, of making choices of poor relationships with partners later on in that their own needs and their own sense of self and identity more fragile. And so, being in a space where breathe out, get on with the job of being able to be children or young people and all the wonderful things that comes in that space. Parental conflict preoccupies them from having that opportunity to develop the way they need to. And that is the piece that the research tells us, keep the conflict away.

(HOST) Bianca, how does the ICP approach vary from an adversarial approach? And further to that, what do you see as the short and long term benefits of families using the process?

(BIANCA) When we’re talking about family law as a whole schemer, we think of it in a legal context. We think of the Family Law Act, and we think about what that very big body of work actually mean. And yet when you’re actually thinking about a separation and the breakdown of a family, you’re actually thinking about relationship and, yes, relationships do have legal contracts. But in essence, they are around human interactions. And so where the adversarial process that we know and it has been, there forever is one where lawyers very much advise their clients on their best outcome. It’s very individualistic process, and one where the evidence that needs to be gathered in a forensic process moves forward to somebody else to make decisions for people who are separating because they can’t make those decisions themselves.

It becomes a process of lawyers only hearing one side of the equation and shoring up the client in front of them and positioning them into a position. And it definitely changes when you’re thinking about parenting relationships, changes the client in front of you from being a parent to being a litigating party. And yes, the adversarial process is there, and for some situations, very much, I guess, needed. And yet the interdisciplinary collaborative practice is a completely different approach to family law, and separation, and settlement within that space.

It’s almost on the other end of that space, where Interdisciplinary Collaborative process you have a team of practitioners all being willing to come together and to put to the centre of their discussions their clients need. And a willingness for that team, of both lawyers of the coach, if there’s a coach working with the clients, of a Child Consultant, if that’s a resource used by the family, of financial neutrals, that is another resource to be used by the family at the time of collaboration. But the team being willing to work together in a dignified, respectful way so that the people at the heart of it can have their needs met their fears, attended to, their hopes recognised and ultimately then be supported, enriching a consensus together on how their family and their settlements going to look moving forward.

It’s not an easy process, the interdisciplinary one. It isn’t necessarily about everybody getting on well together in that space, having a good time.  Because you are talking about changing relationship breakdown and newness of possibility, and that is still a scary time. But yet it is a process that is one, particularly for parents who are separating, is one that can help keep the conflict into the meetings as opposed to outside of them. And that does better for children. But it’s also one where the team can be modelling to parents and with the use of the coach helping parents rework that relationship from an intimate partnership to being parents and where they, in the interdisciplinary process can bring those concerns to those five way meetings, they then get a chance to work through, well how will we now communicate about decisions we have to make about the information we have to get, evaluations or feedback from our children?

All of that becomes conversation and discussions to have with the support of the team. But it’s also a way of the parents can then start continuing to communicate with that framework once the collaborative process is over and they’ve reached a settlement. Ultimately, at the end of any mediated process, any court adversarial process, even a collaborative interdisciplinary process where there are children involved, those parents are going to be continuing to parent, they’re going to have to have a working relationship.

So the way in which us as professionals leave those parents in a hopefully a good whole state will have lasting impacts on their capacity to parent and be available to their children into the future. And I do think that’s where Collaborative really is, a game changer for people and something to really consider, as an option for people who are going through a separation.

(HOST) Bianca, if there’s one message you have for couples with children who are separating, what would it be?

(BIANCA) I think it’s a hard one because, at times of separation, people are also quick to give parents and advice on you know what to do, what not to do, who to talk to, what the scaffold up. And yet every separation is unique. Every family is unique, every child is unique, and so a sort of one size fits all, just doesn’t work. But if I did have the opportunity to give parents who are separating a message, it would be to really not underestimate the capacity of their own children, and it’s the capacity of their children to recover, the capacity of their children to cope with change but also the capacity of their children to really know what is going on around them. Children do know what’s happening in their family.

I will meet with parents as part of collaborative processes or mediation where you know they will say no, no, no, you know, our kids are fine and managing this no problem. You know, I know exactly what my kids are thinking and feeling, they’ve shared it with me and they tell me everything. Or, no, no, no we don’t need to involve the kids that will be too distressing. And yet, when I do have the real privilege of meeting with children within these spaces and it is a privilege, I am constantly struck by the wisdom that children bring to their family and to what is happening around them. Sometimes they’re really not fine. Sometimes they do an amazing job at being brave for their parents, of putting on the brave face, but actually underneath there really only just holding it together. Other times, children are managing and rolling with the changes much better than anybody might have thought. And yet being able to then breathe that confidence into the parents of actually, they’re adjusting their working through some of these unknowns, they’re starting to plan for the future.

And they, yes, might always wish their parents could get back together. But if they can see their parents actually being able to talk calmly about them, that’s kind of enough for them right now to accept. And so being mindful for parents that kids are watching, they are paying attention. They are listening like sponges to everything that’s going on and for parents not to underestimate that, not to devalue a child’s agency, but instead to embrace it, support it and give it the attention and time it needs. I think that’s one message I’d really encourage parents to do, to be brave and to really try to listen to where their children are at.

(HOST) Bianca, thank you for your insights into ICP and especially explaining how children are engaged throughout the process. If listeners are looking for further information on ICP, where can they go? And how can they contact you?

(BIANCA) We now have a federal organisation called the Australian Association of Collaborative Practitioners, and there is a website and on that website, the AACP website. There’s a lot of information about both the collaborative process, there’s some videos on how it works, and you can also see sort of each state’s practising professionals and practice groups that are at play as well.

You can also look at, as I mentioned each state’s professional body and see who might be working in your own area where you live. In the collaborative space, you’ll see a list of trained collaborative lawyers, child consultants, coaches, financial neutrals. And you can contact any of those people to find out about how to get the process happening or to seek further information around it.

And likewise, anybody would be welcome to contact me. I’m based in private practice called The Mediation Collective in the city with some colleagues where I’m working as a mediator and a child consultant and also as an interdisciplinary coach. But if people have got questions about child inclusion work for mediation or collaborative, they’d be more than welcome to contact me. And I’ll do my best to answer and provide what I can.

(HOST) Bianca, thanks for your time.

(BIANCA) Thank you, Wallace.

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