With Parental Post-Separation Conflicts (Recent Research)
Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D
Southern England Psychological Services
What follows will consider the effect on children as well as adults
of the increasing prevalence of divorce and separation between adults
with children. The first objective will be to consider how to prevent
conflicts between previously close adults followed by positive aspects
of mediation as well as at times some of the negative repercussions
of mediation. What will be further discussed will be mediation as
an alternative to litigation and also the use of education and counselling
to deal with post-divorce problems.
Each year, 50% of all marriages now end in divorce and 1 million
children are exposed to a divorced family in the United States alone
(Taylor, 2005). Among the methods of resolving some of the issues
that develop as a result of such separation and divorce, we will
consider mediation between the parents. Unfortunately many adults
do not believe in, nor do they trust the process of mediation when
it is ordered. Children and adolescents coming from families with
high levels of marital conflicts display a variety of difficulties.
Much depends on the intensity of the problems between the adults.
Such problems certainly effect the self-esteem of both children
and adolescents. In many cases in later life both children and adolescents
develop more fearful attachment styles in comparison to those coming
from families of low marital conflict (Sirvanli-Ozen, 2004). It
is frequently necessary to involve psychological treatment in high
conflict divorce (Boyan & Termini, 2005).
Preventing Conflicts if Possible
There has been relatively little research in how to prevent problems
between warring adults which in turn is a way of preventing children
from suffering from this conflict. Children are totally involved
when marriage breaks up and conflicts arise. It has been felt by
numerous investigators that children should be included in the mediation
process (Moloney & McIntosh, 2004; Mackinnon et al.,2004; Louw
& Scherrer, 2004). Such preventive approaches do much to reduce
the negative outcomes experienced by children of divorce (Haine
et al., 2003). If at all possible, a different kind of family life
in which quality of relationship is the key factor needs to be established
(Walker, 2003). In this way parents can institute more protective
behaviour that may enhance children’s short and long-term
adjustment (Kelly & Emery, 2003). Rye et al., (2004) emphasise
the importance of promoting forgiveness of an ex-spouse in post-divorce
adjustment. This is likely to reduce the level of depression, anger
and other negative emotions that frequently result from relationships
Positive Aspects of Mediation
We will now consider some of the positive as well as negative aspects
of mediation. Therapeutic divorce mediation is one of the several
interventions that hold promise for assisting highly conflicted
parents to resolve disputes about their children (Smyth & Moloney,
2003). During the mediation process it is vital to introduce an
intense child focus in order to reduce the conflicts between parents
by asking them to consider what is most important i.e. the child
and his/her future (Kelly, 2003a). It is always important to emphasise
that it should not be a question of who wins and loses the arguments
but what is the common purpose of both parents (McKnight & Erickson,
It has been well known that divorce puts the emotional, economic
and educational well-being of thousands of children in danger every
year. The levels of conflict between parents is a key factor in
how well the children overcome the challenges that divorce creates
(Schepard, 2004). Courts today, seek to involve both parents in
a child’s life rather than having to chose between them. Mediation
and education have replaced to some degree the courtroom as the
primary forum for resolving parental disputes. Unfortunately, mediators
and Courts of Justice, as will be seen later, do not always work
Since April 2001 the Children & Family Court Advisory Support
Service (CAFCASS) in the UK became responsible for family court
work including the provision of mediation services. Family court
mediation offers a gateway for social work with children and families
whose needs are largely left untouched by current services. Such
an organisation could thereby play an important role within the
broader extension of prevention by a process of early intervention.
Parenting and support services have for some time been recommended
by the Government of the United Kingdom. Over the past decades,
mediation has become a popular approach to reducing conflict and
resolving disputes (Mantle & Critchley, 2004), but not when
the hostility between the parents is pathological.
Following such mediation after divorce there are many legal consequences.
Among them is the regulation of the relationship between parents
and children in as far as how it relates to contact with children
(Kraljic, 2005). Contact with children is often the central problem
of divorcing parents. Instead of maintaining genuine relations with
their children, they may abuse them for their own purposes, including
practising parental alienation. Mediation should help parents and
children realise that parenting does not end with divorce.
It is also very important to involve the children at some point
in time in the process of mediation (Schoffer, 2005). One must listen
to the child but one must also listen to the ‘secret voice
‘ that does not always speak within the child due to the fact
that what the child states may not be in his/her best interest and
is often based on prejudice, bias and a process of alienation (Lowenstein,
2005a-j; McIntosh et al., 2004, Moloney & McIntosh, 2004). Moloney
& McIntosh draw a distinction between child-focused and child–inclusive
practice. Child-inclusive practice, on the other hand more formally
fulfils the aspirations of the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child that children should be consulted when decisions
about their welfare are being made. Further, child-inclusive practice
as defined by Moloney and McIntosh allows for consultation without
placing the burden of decision-making on the child. An article by
Schoffer (2005) discusses the cost and benefits of the child’s
involvement and comes to the conclusion that the integration of
children in mediation ought to be considered on a case to case basis.
The alienation process occurs over time between divorced parents
who experienced severe or pathological parental conflicts. Psychologists,
psychiatrists, and psychotherapists working as parent co-ordinators
have found the work extremely challenging since parents take stands
that go counter to one another, especially in high conflict divorce
(Boyan & Termini, 2005).
Mediation as an Alternative to Litigation
There has been in practice the view based on the importance of
mediation rather than litigation. This however, is not always feasible
since parents, through the mediation process, hope to gain what
they believe to be their own right. Mediators can only do so much
to seek the co-operation of parents who may be extremely distant
or opposite in their viewpoints. In the endthey will require the
court to support their efforts (Lowenstein, 2005a-j). There is a
growing need to examine the consistency and effectiveness of child
custody mediation endeavours in the USA as noted by Ortega et al.,
(2004). Some districts favour judge-imposed orders and other districts
favour mediated settlements. As an alternative to litigation mediation
has been used to resolve conflicts in a co-operative manner to reflect
the best interests of all the parties. This is easier said than
done as already mentioned (Bartholomae et al., 2003; Bailey &
Robbins, 2005). Parents will always seek to get the mediator to
take sides. When the mediator resists this, one or both parents
will turn against the mediator.
Another reason for relying heavily on mediation processes is that
family disputes are the bane of overburdened court systems, especially
in child access issues, and consume a disproportionate share of
court resources. Consequently, family mediation has become a viable
method of helping to resolve disputes and mental health professionals
are increasingly called upon to mediate child access and support
disagreements (Ortega et al., 2004). As already mentioned children
have a need to be involved in this process but in the most sensitive
This is because mediation, at least in a large part, must be child
focused. Hence, while children should be consulted when decisions
about their welfare are being made it is vital to look deeper into
the decisions and feelings of children before including what they
say or feel as being as meaningful as it appears to be. This is
due to the fact that many children are seeking security with usually
the custodial parent, and are in many cases willing to reject the
non-resident parent for no good reason (McIntosh et al., 2004).
The child thus taking the side of one parent at the expense of the
other is wrong. The excluded or ‘side-lined’ parent
feels he/she is being treated unjustly. The child cannot in the
short or long-term benefit form this state of affairs.
Problems of Mediation
It has already been suggested that mediation is not a perfect way
of dealing with the problem of conflict between parents involving
children. As pointed out by Lowenstein (2005a-j) without the support
of the court, when there is implacable, irrational hostility between
the parents, the mediation process often is a meaningless activity.
This is because children are almost always caught in the triangle
of their parent’s fights. This ‘war’ may either
be open or made insidious such as when parental alienation or parental
alienation syndrome is present (Goncalves & de Vincenzi, 2003).
Other family members and even strangers become embroiled in the
conflict. A study by Sbarra & Emery (2005) re-evaluated the
long-term effects of divorce mediation on adults’ psychological
adjustment and investigated the relations among co-parenting custody
conflicts. This revealed that fathers and parents who mediated their
custody disputes reported significantly more non acceptance based
on a 12 year follow-up assessment. Unfortunately this is one of
the few longer term researches available.
Education and Counselling
Another approach has been used often combined with the mediation
process. This is education and counselling of parents who have found
it difficult to avoid their conflict continuing especially in relation
to their children. Attendance at divorce education classes were
found to be associated with whether a subject will return to court
of not. Those who attended were less likely to return to court and
litigation (Criddle et al., 2003).
There have been substantial changes in scientific and public perspectives
regarding children’s adjustment to divorce in the United States.
Decades of divorce research have created a more complex and nuanced
understanding of how divorce impacts on children and adolescents.
The stressors and risks which divorce presents for children, the
resiliency demonstrated by the majority of children, and protective
factors which are associated with better judgement following divorce
are described by Kelly (2003b). A distinction is drawn between painful
memories and psychopathology. It is therefore felt that educating
divorced parents about known risk factors for their children acts
as a protective measure to enhance their children’s long-term
Family advocates and family counsellors represent the best interests
of children in divorce actions (Scherrer & Louw, 2004). Regardless
of how the divorce occurs, it is important to note that there are
hurt parties in need of healing. Mediation and divorce education
lend themselves to reduce the pain and anguish being experienced
in some cases. It is only when the parents are free from the trauma
associated with divorce that they may serve as a positive influence
on their children (Taylor, 2004). Only by helping parents to move
from entrenched disputes towards a more constructive co-parenting
relationship will the best interest of the children be served (McIntosh
& Deacon-Wood, 2003).
There are several ways to prevent and deal with conflicts between
parents for the benefit of the children. These ways aim to improve
situations including the treatment of individual parents using psychological
techniques, using mediation and education procedures. One must be
aware of the fact that these are not always effective on their own.
It has been established that without the support of the court or
the Judiciary many procedures of mediation are unsuccessful. Hence,
there are both positive and negative outcomes of mediation. Some
of the less severe conflicts are resolved by mediation alone. The
more severe cases require a combination of court involvement and
the mediation process working co-operatively.
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