Going through a separation or divorce with children can add another layer of emotional stress and uncertainty for spouses. Parents often struggle with how much, if anything, to share with their children, how to communicate with them about the separation, and how to involve them in the process in a healthy way. Sometimes, in an effort to spare their children from the stress of separation, parents may inadvertently keep them from having a voice in the process.
While children ultimately want to know that their parents are still the parents and, by extension, the family decision-makers, it is important to recognize that children will also often want their views considered and heard. After all, many of the decisions involved in separation and divorce affect the children as much as the parents. Under the Family Law Act, not only the Court, but also parents, must make decisions about parenting arrangements by considering only the best interests of the child. One of the factors to consider when making such decisions is the child’s views, unless it would be inappropriate to do so.
While there is no magic age at which a child should be consulted about parenting arrange-ments, depending upon their maturity, children as young as nine years old (or even younger in some circumstances) can have their opinions heard. The younger the child, the more concern there is that one or both parents may influence their views, so that the child simply “parrots” back what a parent wishes to hear. Young children can feel caught in the middle or may not want to disappoint a parent. Even teenagers may feel pressured to choose one parent over the other, often the perceived “wronged” or “vulnerable” parent who the teen believes needs their support.
Despite these challenges, it is important that children and teens have opportunities to express their views, not about who is to blame for the breakdown of the marriage or about who ought to be paying support, but about matters that affect their everyday life.
So, how can you ensure that your child’s voice is heard?
1. Listen. As simple as this sounds, make sure you listen to your children. Try to avoid the temptation of lecturing or filling up the space with your own words; just listen. Your children may have questions you don’t have answers to; that’s ok. It is perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” or “I need to think about that one.”
2. Seek professional support. Consider seeking the help of a professional counsellor to give you the tools to listen well and communicate in a healthy way during this trying time. In fact, it may be beneficial to have some of these conversations with a therapist or Divorce Coach present, a professional who can help with healthy communication and processing, as well as ensure a safe environment for your child to feel heard, in the midst of the emotional crisis of the family. You can also retain a professional known as a Child Specialist to interview your child and report back about how they are doing or what they think about decisions being made, particularly in the Collaborative Divorce process.
3. Obtain a Hear the Child Report. If you and your former spouse want to include your child’s views while negotiating a separation or mediated agreement, consider obtaining a Hear the Child Report, where an interviewer (a lawyer or counsellor specifically trained in interviewing children) meets with your child to hear their views and report back to you. Such a report can be of great assistance, particularly if your child understands that the reason for it is to ensure he or she is heard in the process, not so that either of you can obtain “ammunition” for a divorce war. Some mediators will involve older children in the mediation process itself in unique circumstances.
If you find yourself in an adversarial court process, the Court will need to hear the views of the children (particularly teenagers). While both you and your spouse can give evidence of your child’s views, this evidence can be unreliable and contradictory.
Instead, the family law system offers a number of ways for the Courts to receive a more direct, reliable account of children’s views:
1. a Hear the Child Report (privately paid for equally between the parties or by one parent),
2. a Views of the Child Report (publically funded and free of charge, provided by Family Justice Counsellors),
3. a full Section 211 Report (in which the author interviews the child, assesses both parents, observes the child in each parent’s care and gives an expert opinion as to suitable parenting arrangements),
4. a direct interview of the child by the judge (not common, but a quick and non-costly option in the right circumstances), or
5. through the assistance of the “Child and Youth Legal Centre”, a resource of The Society for Children and Youth in BC, which can provide legal advice and advocacy for children themselves in family law and other matters.
The Bottom Line
Research shows that children who feel that their voices have been heard in their parent’s separation process adjust better than those who have been silenced or isolated. As we focus on supporting and protecting children during this time of transition, let’s ensure we look for positive ways to give them a voice in safe and healthy environments.