In the Best Interests of a Teenager: How Child-Centered Mediation Can Help Keep the Peace

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Parents, lawyers, social services professionals and therapists all become involved in trying to work out a parenting schedule that works. The focus, however, is too often on what is fair to the parents versus what will meet a teenager’s needs.

As a family law attorney, I have had several cases recently where the parties have inquired about parenting time for their teenager. Minn. Stat. Sec. 518.175, governs parenting time and requires the court to grant such parenting time, which enables the child and the parent to maintain a child-to-parent relationship that will be in the best interest of the child. This statute and relevant case law provide a measure of guidance for establishing parenting time of younger children. However, in practice, there is little guidance for determining the parenting time schedule for a teenager.

Those of us who have raised teenagers know that somewhere around age 13, the parent-child relationship often begins to change. The sweet, biddable son or daughter who once wanted us to read to them at bedtime or snuggle on the couch to watch a Disney movie can become uncommunicative and sullen as a teenager, often wanting to spend more time in his or her room than with the rest of the family. Family outings become challenging and our teenager may refuse to sit next to us at a movie theatre or be seen walking with us at the mall. Friends and connections to social media become more important to them than anything parents have to offer.

A teenager’s angst is compounded when their parents separate and divorce at this critical developmental stage. They may become angry at the parent who leaves the home or at the parent who stays, accusing them of driving the other parent away. Their grades may drop or they may become more focused on school work or sports. Things they have always taken for granted, such as extended family holiday celebrations, family vacations and summer stays at the family cabin may all change due to the divorce. In most families, financial changes have to be made because there are now two households to maintain and things like eating out, entertainment, private school tuition and designer clothes may no longer be feasible. Teenagers may also feel a lot of pressure from their parents, grandparents and even older siblings to take sides in the divorce. At a developmental stage when there are already so many pressures and when teenagers are learning to separate from their parents in preparation for adulthood, a teenager in a divorce situation will often feel powerless and out of control.

In this scenario, comes the question of a teenager’s parenting time with his or her divorcing parents. Most teenagers do not want to become involved in this decision. They simply want their home, room, school and life not to change. They especially do not want to choose between two people they love.

Parents, lawyers, social services professionals and therapists all become involved in trying to work out a parenting schedule that works. The focus, however, is too often on what is fair to the parents versus what will meet a teenager’s needs. If a teenager objects to the schedule chosen for them by the family court system, it can lead to litigation with one parent blaming the other parent for the teenager’s lack of cooperation. Minn. Stat. Sec. 518.171 Subd. 2, states that the “parent with whom the child resides shall present the child for parenting time with the other parent at such times as the court directs.” That is an interesting notion; try presenting that to a 6-foot, 175 pound linebacker for parenting time when he doesn’t want to go. Even the diminutive dancer is difficult to drag out of her room for unwanted parenting time, but that is the expectation and many parents will find themselves in court responding to a contempt motion for failing to present a teenager for parenting time.

As lawyers, how can we help our clients deal with the issue of keeping a close and enjoyable relationship with their teenager during this difficult time? Often, when we have a teen resisting parenting time, we recommend family therapy. If the unwillingness to see one of the parents has gone on for a while, a reunification therapist who can work with the teenager and the estranged parent on ways to renew a previously satisfying relationship may be in order.

Recently, the idea of child-centered mediation has been used to deal effectively with this difficult issue. The parents, already in mediation to resolve divorce issues, agree that a second mediator, usually a therapist, be appointed for the teenager. That mediator meets with each parent and the teenager, obtaining an understanding of just what motivations are at work in the situation and allowing the teenager to have a safe, nonjudgmental place to express his or her real feelings and wishes. The mediator then joins the parents and the divorce mediator in a mediation session in which he or she will advocate for the teen and negotiate a schedule that really meets their needs. Over the past few years I have seen child-centered mediation be a very effective tool in resolving these types of parenting conflicts, giving the teenager a much needed voice in his or her life.   Kathleen Newman

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