We all too often overlook the cost of the pandemic to children. Increased screen time, sleep disturbances, sustained lack of participation with play, sports, or friends. School closures, isolation, and general “family stress” were difficult experiences for many children, further exacerbated in homes where there was parental conflict. In these unprecedented times, families can benefit when parents focus on a child-centered approach to decision-making by keeping kids “in the center, not in the middle” of issues that directly impact them.
Centering Children’s Voices
The pandemic disrupted many aspects of our lives, and the impacts will be felt for years to come. Parents are grappling with immediate issues affecting their children as varied as whether vaccinations are indicated, the best way to reestablish peer connections, and whether to attend school, summer camp, sports, or social engagements in person. Enhancing child-centered decision-making requires the acknowledgment that all too often, decisions are made in the best interests of the child, but without actually consulting the child.
The United Nations Commission on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) affirmed that:
- Every child has the right to express their views in matters that pertain to them.
- Due weight should be given to the child’s voice based on age and maturity.
- Children are people now, and not people in the making.
- A child should not be treated less seriously.
- Infants and children are vulnerable and must be protected.
- These rights should be promoted to make them meaningful.
Child-Centered Decision Making Process
What exactly does a child-centered approach to decision-making look like or sound like? The first component is seeking direct input from the child. First consider how the decision will affect each child in the family unit, both individually and collectively. Then ask the child what their views and preferences are. Next, make the decision in the child’s best interest, and report back to them so that they know how their voices impacted the decision. “Voice does not equal choice” but by the act of seeking input, we signal to children that they are not removed from the discourse around issues that impact them.
When disputes arise between parents, first explore what the child says they need. If you focus on the child, you are more likely to find mutually acceptable solutions. You are more likely to be able to detach from the fear and pain that drives co-parenting conflict and to concentrate on the objectives, goals and needs of the child in a judgment-free way. Making the decision together takes the children out of the dispute.
Focus on minimizing the traumatic effects of parental conflict on the child. A divorce is considered an “adverse childhood experience” for many children which subjects them to a higher chance of negative health impacts in adulthood. For those parents who are at the center of co-parenting with a challenging ex, it may help to ask yourself some rhetorical questions, such as “is this the best I can do?” or “can I defend my decision in court?” or “what memories do I want my child to have?” When children are already under a lot of day-to-day anxiety, buffering the impact of high conflict will remove at least one element of the equation.
When in doubt, rely on the three “Cs” of co-parenting – communicate, compromise, and cooperate. A child-centered parenting plan which involves seeking input from the child will decrease feelings of isolation and marginalization and contribute to a more positive recovery for children suffering the negative impacts of the pandemic.