Mediation is frequently recommended
with the hope it will be successful with families in turmoil. It is
especially used when there are issues between former partners which prevent
good contact between children and the now absent, once loved and loving parent.
A successful outcome, using mediation depends on the sincere desire of all
parties to seek a degree of give and take. Mediation is normally doomed to
fail when all the parties are entrenched in their position of hostility
towards one another.
Why does mediation often fail with families in turmoil?
as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers etc. are frequently finding
considerable obstacles in seeking to help parents in conflict. Before the
Judiciary is willing to make any judgments there is often a proposal that
some form of mediation take place for the purpose of seeking to reduce the
tension between warring parents which are affecting not only themselves but
even more their children. What follows will consider the objectives of
mediation, the reason why such approaches are sometimes successful, but
also the reasons for failure. These fall into five areas: a) the implacable
hostility and lack of good will between the parents; b) the power struggle
for control over children, usually by the custodial parent; c) irrational
insecurity of mother/father, that is, fearing loss of maternity/paternity
and control over their children; d) lack of confidence in the other parent
to be a good parent; e) seeking to displace the other parent in the mind of
The objective of mediation
The objective of mediation is to use a ‘softly,
softly’ approach rather than the court in making decisions to resolve
animosities between parents which affect children. The attempt is made to
do what is in the best interest of a
child/children, especially when there is a likelihood of custody disputes
or contact disputes. One might say that the object of mediation is to promote
harmony where there is disharmony, and to promote positive thinking where
there is negative thinking. All is done in the name of what is best for the
child/children involved in the matrimonial dispute following divorce or
The present psychologist works as a mediator with
parents and finds it is best to see each parent and each child individually
before attempting to bring them together in some form of group work or
decision. Frequently there is great animosity between the parents and
having the parents assemble before the mediator usually results in
animosity and accusations and counter accusations. This must be avoided at
all costs before any group meeting takes place. It can be noted by most
mediators that both parents attempt to use the children against the other
parent rather than to work together as a team to help their children
develop a positive relationship with both parents.
In seeing each of the individuals on their own some
form of judgment can be made as to what each person is willing to accept
and where they are implacable in their hostility towards the other parent
and are unable to be able to shift towards a more neutral and accepting
Both parents are made aware of the importance of
finding a solution to their animosity as it affects the children and it is
certainly not in the best interests of the children for there to be
conflict between the parents. On a specific note, what has to be worked out
is what kind of contact should take place between the parent
who is now absent from the home and the children who are usually living
with the custodial parent, usually the mother. Where the reverse is the case, and father has custody then this must also be
considered in a similar light.
Reasons for successful mediation between warring parents
The reason there is success rather than failure is due
to the skill of the mediator as well as the willingness of the parties to
join in the common pursuit of seeking what is in the best interest of their
children. If this can be achieved there is no further need for courts to be
involved or indeed for any further mediation to take place.
The mediator must be more direct than in most other
cases of mediation.
What should be achieved by the mediation that takes
Both parents should be told that the mediator will
attempt to find a solution which will be in the best interest of the
child/children and this should also be the objective of both parents.
What can be discussed on a more specific basis is the
contact between the absent parent and the child/children and that these be
a flexible as possible but also organised on a regular basis so that each
parent will know when the child/children are with each. It may even be
recommended that from time to time, if there is a peaceful or harmonious
relationship developing between the former partners that the partners both
be involved with the children at the same time. This is of great value to
children who see their parents being friendly towards one another, although
no longer together and acting as good parents to the children.
This is not always achievable as there is often some
considerable animosity between many parents who part from one another. This
is sometimes due to other people being involved with one or both parents.
This results in animosity, especially when one partner wishes to eradicate
the memory of the other partner in the mind of the child/children.
It must be said that some parents are reasonable and
understand the objective of the mediator and seek to follow the principle
of what is best for the children and avoid the necessity of having to fight
things out in a courtroom situation. The mediator may need to be available
for occasional feed-back and to repair any areas of further problems that
may erupt over time and help make a decision which will be of value to the
parents concerned and of course the children. Hence, mediation sometimes
needs to be an ongoing process which does not end when the parents have
agreed a certain course of action. This is because relapses in
relationships can reoccur in the future.
Reasons why many mediation procedures fail with
families in conflict.
There are at least five reasons why mediation
procedures may fail with families in conflict. They are:
a) The powerful
implacable hostility and lack of
good will between the parents;
b) The power struggle for control of the children
between the parents;
c) The irrational
insecurity and the fear of losing one’s role as a parental figure;
d) The lack of
confidence in the other parent to play a positive role;
e) Seeking to
displace the other natural parent and involving another partner to become a
“parent” to the child/children.
We will look at each of these in turn.
a) The powerful implacable
hostility and lack of good will between the parents
The implacable hostility between parents is frequently
so ingrained that it is difficult for the mediator to shift this. There is
little, if any, good will between the parents towards one another and this
involves the children. If the hostilities are strong mediators will find it
difficult to break through this and make the parent realise that he/she is
not acting in accordance of what is in the best interest of their children.
Here one, or both parents will speak badly about the
other parent in the presence of the children and directly or indirectly
discourage the children having any contact with the absent parent. They
will assert that the child/children do not wish to have any good contact
with the other parent. Frequently this is disguised in a manner whereby the
parent states eventually, after an assessment that it is not they (the
who prevent the contact with the child, but the child not
wishing such contact with the other parent. Such wishes of no contact with
the absent parent are often a result of direct or subtle indoctrination.
b) The power struggle for
control of the children between the parents
Parents who have custody of children frequently note
that perhaps once they did not have total control over the child/children
they do now have this power. They are reluctant to give up this power or
share it with the other parent regardless of what the mediator is
attempting to achieve in this respect.
The children become a pawn in the recrimination about
the opposite parent and are frequently used by the powerful, controlling
parent to turn the child, and to keep the child turned against the opposite
parent. In this way they have total control of a permanent nature. Children
frequently find it difficult to oppose such control and will conform to
whatever the custodial parent wishes them to do or say, especially in
relation to the other parent.
Hence, the custodial parent will determine every action
that the child may take in relation t o the opposite parent i.e. when the
child should be seen and under what circumstances by the other parent who
is now absent from the family home. This of course is resented by the non
custodial parent and sometimes leads to aggressive behaviour and no contact
between that absent parent and the child. No mediation procedure is likely
to be able to overcome this type of scenarios of implacable hostility and
the result of it in the form of total control over children.
c) The irrational
insecurity and the fear of losing one’s role as a parental figure
Some parents who are of an insecure nature often
require total control over their children fearing that failing to promote
such control they may lose their position as matriarch/patriarch, and they
will no long be able to continue being a parent to the particular children.
Hence they cannot share any contact with the other parent or the contact
has to be extremely limited between the children and the absent parent to
provide a feeling of security by the custodial parent.
d) The lack of confidence
in the other parent to play a positive role
Some custodial parents find it difficult to have
confidence in the other parent. Sometimes the lack of confidence in the
other parent is justified, but very often it is not, and is merely a reason
for seeking total control and avoiding the other parent playing an
important role in the children’s lives. Frequently, accusations are
made that the other parent is too strict, or is too lax, or may even be
accused of being aggressive towards the child, or shows other negative
patterns of behavior not excluding the
possibility of sexual abuse of the child. The latter accusation however,
only happens in the most extreme cases of hostility between the custodial
parent and the absent parent. In all such cases there is a need for a
proper investigation of the allegations and should they be true, especially
that sexual, physical or emotional abuse has taken place then that parent
should have no role to play in the child’s life. Should it however,
be found to be untrue then it needs to be confirmed to the custodial parent
that the other parent is quite capable of playing a positive role in the
child’s life. The false accusation of sexual abuse is a form of
emotional abuse of the vulnerable child.
e) Seeking to displace the
other parent and involving another partner to become a parent to the
There is frequently a fear that another parent may take
the place of themselves in the relationship of the child. This occurs when
a new relationship develops between the custodial parent and another
person, and also between the absent parent and another. The custodial
parent frequently seeks to use the new partner to take the role as a
substitute parent, be it a father or a mother, and engenders in the
child’s mind, as well as encouraging the behaviour of the child to
treat the new partner as “dad”/”mum”. Equally, when
the non custodial parent has a new partner this results in anxiety in the
custodial parent. In each case there is a fear that the other person may
try to usurp the custodial mother’s position during contact visits.
In this kind of situation mediation is not likely to be
successful as the manipulation of a custodial parent is so powerful that no
form of meditation can be successful. It occurs when the natural parent, be
it the father or mother, fears being ousted from the child’s
relationship as the natural parent of that child and the entitlements that
go with that.
Needless to say this causes great anxiety for the
absent parent who has had in many cases a close and warm relationship with
the child but is now being sidelined as a parent and the new person in the
custodial parent’s life has allegedly taken his place as the parental
This short article attempts to indicate why mediation
can be successful but in what circumstances it can fail or be totally
ineffective. Reasons are provided for a successful process of mediation and
five reasons are given as to why mediation sometimes cannot succeed and the
courts need to be involved. It must be said that an expert witness
frequently has to carry out an assessment of both parties and the children
in the conflict and provide evidence to the court of what the expert feels
is likely to be in the best interest of children caught up in post
separation disputes and implacable hostility that often results.
The expert witness reporting the result of the
mediation to the court must present conclusions as to who was responsible
for the mediation failing or indeed succeeding. The Judiciary can then
decide on the next course of action. It is especially important that the
Judiciary put pressure on the party who fails to co-operate to change. The
alienating party should not be able to hide behind the façade and contrived
argument that it is not they (the custodial parent) who
is responsible for an absent parent having no, or poor contact with the
Blaming the child in not wanting contact should not be
allowed to be an option when it is known that the child had a good
relationship with a now absent parent in the past. Something must have
happened to change the child’s orientation towards the now absent
parent! The conclusion is that it could only be due to the direct or subtle
practice, of the child having been alienated against the absent parent.
This is often combined with the custodial parent not being sincere and
determined for the child to have good contact with the now absent parent..