Agreeing to a divorce may feel like you’ve finally reached a solution to your problem. However, filing for divorce only leads to more issues that must be resolved. The weight you felt lift from your shoulders may settle back down when you realize the complexity of this legal process, including how hard it’s going to be to share custody.

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You and your spouse can take the adversarial approach and argue for child custody in court. Many parents who have a hard time communicating or have a troubled relationship choose this approach. However, there is another way that may be significantly better for your children: mediation.

What is family mediation?

Mediation is a type of alternative dispute resolution, which means you try to solve your problems out of court. During mediation, you and the other party, in this case your child’s other parent, meet with a neutral third party, a mediator. Your mediator is a professional who is trained to guide you through difficult discussions and come to a resolution. The mediator is not there to make decisions about your children. They are an objective party who is there to keep the conversation on course, help you and your spouse understand each other, and when possible, help you two reach a compromise.

In family court situations, mediation may be required or optional. It depends on your county court’s procedures. If you go through family mediation through the court system, there may be mediators who are provided or recommended. You can also go through private mediation outside of the court system, in which case you and your spouse must decide on how to choose a mediator, such as through the American Arbitration Association, and pay for their services.

When you are scheduled to go through family mediation, you should work with your attorney to prepare. You should be aware of your and your spouse’s rights before attending the first mediation meeting. Talk with your lawyer about your options regarding child custody, including sole and joint custody. Discuss your ideal situation and areas in which you are willing to compromise.

How long mediation takes depends on those involved. If you and your spouse are prepared to cooperate, you may resolve your children custody issues in one or two sessions. If you do not agree, it may take weeks or months of meetings. It is also possible for mediation to fail, in which case, you must have a judge decide your child custody arrangement.

Show your children you can cooperate

Even though you may not tell your children much about the divorce process, they’ll figure things out. In an article titled “Children’s Reactions to Parental Separation and Divorce,” Catherine M. Lee, PhD, and Karen A. Bax, BA, of the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa write that it is clear children of all ages are sensitive to conflict as well as the resolution of conflict. Children know when something is wrong, even when you are polite, and they know when the problem has been fixed. According to Lee and Bax, if children have the chance to see the resolution of problems, they can benefit from problem-solving skills. Therefore, during a divorce, it is important for parents to consider how they resolve conflicts with their partner.

“When parents are in a better place, children are in a better place, so mediation is a process that’s less stressful for parents. It’s less of a financial burden than litigation; it’s less emotionally charged,” says Beth Maultsby, a family law attorney and former social worker with GoransonBain Ausley, who sees mediation as an alternative to involving children in the divorce litigation process. “The more you have children participate in the process, the greater the risk is to the child in a lot of different ways—emotionally, psychologically.”

You can discuss with your children that mediation means you and their other parent are going to sit down and talk about what is best for them, outside of an adversarial courtroom setting. You can consistently reinforce that they are not the cause of the conflict, you and their other parent love them unconditionally, and are capable of working together as a family.

Create a custom parenting plan

When you go to a judge and ask for custody, the judge is going to hand down a pretty typical agreement, like weekends with the non-custodial parent or switching houses every week. You are going to end up with a decision that looks like a safe and healthy arrangement for the children, but it won’t really take their actual feelings, needs, and desires into consideration.

Through mediation, you and your spouse can create an agreement that truly addresses your children’s needs and your capabilities as parents. Lee and Bax write that it is not necessarily the amount of time your child spends with each parent that is important. Instead, the quality of the parent-child relationship matters most. Through mediation, you and your spouse can create a parenting plan that fosters your child’s relationship with each of you.

For instance, if you’re worried about your children going back and forth a lot, you can agree to each parent having a lengthy period of time before switching. If your children need time to adjust, you can arrange to slowly increase the amount of time they spend with their other parent outside of the family home. If you and your family already have certain holiday traditions, you can figure out how to keep those intact as much as possible.

“Children don’t want to be put in the middle, as a general rule,” Maultsby says. “They don’t want to be in a position where it looks like they’ve picked one parent over another, even if they prefer one parent over another.” Creating a sense of fairness and balance in the planning stages of mediation will help to alleviate this potential stress for your child.

Throughout the custody arrangement, children benefit when parents regularly communicate. Find the communication that works best for you and your child’s other parent, whether that is in person, through e-mail, or some other method.

Contact a family mediation attorney

To learn more about using mediation during a divorce or child custody battle, contact a local divorce attorney who is highly experienced in family mediation. Be sure to look through their credentials and case history—not all divorce lawyers are familiar with the mediation process. Some have never utilized mediation with their clients before and others do so rarely. These divorce lawyers are focused on the adversarial court process. If you wish to stay out of the courtroom as much as possible, find a lawyer who is confident they can successfully guide you through mediation.