Our mediator Sarah-Jane Turnbull was on BBC Radio Newcastle on 18th January talking to Lisa Shaw about the benefits of family mediation in helping separated couples navigate the difficulties of this latest lockdown. Clients have told us they found this conversation helpful, so we thought we’d put together an extract of what they discussed plus our responses to some of the questions that separated parents are asking us right now.
“It's been a testing time for relationships hasn't it, tell us about the work you do to support families through those times when normal relationships have broken down....”
It’s been a very challenging time for everyone throughout this pandemic. There are so many different pressures and strains that everyone is facing. Health care workers, people living alone, people home-schooling.
And for some people, these extra pressures and strains may have resulted in the end of their relationship and they’ve then had to deal with all the stress and difficulty that this can bring on top of everything else.
At Family Mediation North East, we help families with the practical issues that they face once they’ve separated, such as where are the children going to live, what they going to do with their joint account. For a lot of people, these decisions can feel overwhelming particularly when you must make them with someone that you’ve recently separated from and perhaps can’t even bear to speak to anymore. Family mediation can help people with this.
“Has that work changed throughout the pandemic?”
I’d say the pandemic seems to have escalated a lot of the problems being were facing with already. Relationships break down for all sorts of individual reasons. One reason can certainly be money issues and that has certainly escalated for a lot of our clients. At Family Mediation North East we offer a cost-effective service and we have Legal Aid contract which means we can offer FREE mediation for those that are eligible for Legal Aid. And unfortunately, due to the pandemic a lot of people are being furloughed or out of work which means they’re often eligible for Legal Aid, with fortunately means they can access the help of family mediation for FREE.
“What are some of the main concerns people have been coming to you with?”
We’ve found there are a few themes that separated parents have struggled with during the pandemic such as issues with bubbles and making decisions about who should be in them, does everyone have the same understanding of the government guidance, sharing home-schooling responsibilities etc.
And in our experience, the main resolution to the majority of these issues is improved communication between separated parents, which is something family mediation can really help people with.
“One thing which I've noticed over the past year is that most people seem to have come up with an individual way to follow the rules. So they might think they are following them to the T but may have in fact bended them to suit their needs. This can cause disagreements can't it....”
Certainly, there have been so many changes to the guidance over this period and there are differences for people that are at high risk etc of course there has been confusion. And for people that struggle to communicate at the best of times confusion can breed conflict.
Family mediation can help those separated parents to break through that confusion, share information and make joint decisions. This will make the situation better for themselves, as they’ll be less stress in their life, with less arguments. But what most separated parents tell us they want, is for things to be better for their children. They don’t want their children to see them arguing and stressed out and family mediation can help reduce this conflict so it has a positive impact on the whole family.
“So say you have two people with different interpretations of what the rules are, both think they're right - what's the best way for them to approach that discussion?
- An example I'll give you is say a grandparent doesn't want to choose between which grandchild they see from different households. And because they are allowed to help with childcare they don't think they have to choose. How do you get the correct rules across to them”
An important principle of mediation is that of self-determination. Its’ not up to the mediator to tell families what is right and what is wrong, who are we to do that. Parents know their children and their circumstances better than the mediator ever could.
What mediation can support people to do is to break through the communication barriers, to share information, to have discussions. It’s completely normal for people to disagree with each other. It is how you manage those disagreements so the co-parenting relationship doesn’t break down that’s important, and family mediation can help people do that.
“This could be applied to all bubbles couldn't it if a single person has to choose which family they're going to bubble with....”
Of course, it’s about having an open dialogue between everyone, allowing everyone to share information, to speak and to listen. All of these things sound fairly simple but when we’re in the eye of the storm of a conflict or we’re really stressed out it can be hard to do this, so sometimes you need support to get you back on track and mediation can do that.
“Another area we've spoken about is that of blended families, that is to say people have kids, that relationship ends, they meet someone else, maybe have another kid and as a result you can have two or more sets of relations...and all of those people will have opinions on what's safe and what's not, what the priority is....its a minefield isn't it....”
All the research has shown that children are adaptable, there are lots of different family dynamics at there and children can thrive in them all. What children can struggle with is conflict. And of course, the pandemic has brought about the challenge that people who are potentially already in conflict need to make lots of decisions together. Such as who is home-schooling on what day. The key to this is going to be communication. Whatever these families can do to enable this open communication to reduce the conflict.
“What's the best way for the parents in those situations to work around their personal concerns so that the children aren't affected?”
Find a time and space to have discussions, whether this is face to face, if this is safe and within the guidelines to do this. Or via video conferencing. We know 50% of communication is nonverbal so its helpful to be able to see the other person when you’re talking to them. At Family Mediation North East we’ve found video conferencing to work really well to help people to have discussions. It’s important to create a dedicated time and space to have the conversation, so you’re not trying to tidying up or doing the dishes but you find the time, which of course is hard at the min, to have a focused conversation on what you need from each other. Be patient with each other, you never know what the other person is going through.
“And what about for those families who are still together but suddenly spending every waking second together - what’s the best way to keep a happy home life?”
Everyone is struggling in lots of different ways at the moment. I think its first helpful to look at as an individual how can I reduce my stress, how can I fill my cup, so for some people that’s reducing the amount of news they’re watching, having a long bath or playing video games. Once we’ve been able to take some time to care for ourselves, we’ve filled our cup we’re usually in a much better place to handle the challenges we’re facing and support each other through this.
“We're all juggling at the minute aren't we, getting to grips with what is and isn't allowed, working, housework, looking after pets, children, homeschooling - the list goes on. How can we divvy things up so one person doesn't feel resentful and that they're doing the bulk of things.”
It of course all depends on each individuals’ circumstances. There are people at the moment, single parents for example, that may not have someone else to share the list with. This can be incredibly isolating for them. There is help available in the community. On our website, we have a series of links to support available in the North East for those that need it. And for those that are fortunate enough to have someone around to help, I think it's important to consider how and when we communicate what help we need from each other and to consider the other person's circumstances when approaching that conversation.