Why does mediation often fail with families in turmoil?

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



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?

Experts such 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 child/children.

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 separation.

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 position.

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 place?

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 custodial parent)  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 child/children.

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 figure.

Final statement

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 child.

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.