Mediations which include custody and parenting time can be very complex, especially when the family dynamics are complicated. Effective mediation requires close attention to the roles each party demonstrates in the session as well as any observable power dynamics. Mediators can ask questions that help identify and disrupt any negative dynamic during the mediation sessions. Asking the right questions is especially important when a high-conflict family is experiencing a child or children resisting contact with one of the parents.
In this article, we will look at two decision points a mediator can consider to determine if and how mediation of parenting time is an appropriate support for the family when a child is resisting or refusing to spend time with a parent. Additionally, we can consider ways mediation can best support the family. Consider these two decision points for giving a “green light” for mediation:
Are both parents willing to do all they can to support a relationship with both parents? Can the mediator discern that the parents are both sincerely committed to seeking resources and taking steps for the child(ren) to have as high-quality of a relationship with both parents as possible?
AND / OR
Do the parents agree to seek a mediated parenting plan which gives one parent significantly more time and more decision-making for the child(ren)?
Absent a “yes” to one or both of these questions, parenting time mediation is not an appropriate service for a family experiencing contact problems. When the parents are in conflict and do not agree that it is in the children’s best interest for the children to spend quality time and nurture a good relationship with both parents, other more appropriate services include education, counseling, coaching, co-parent coaching and/or parenting coordination. Mediators, even if they are qualified by training or experience, cannot advise a family how to address the refusal or resistance dynamic; specialized professionals are needed to teach or coach the parties to a new understanding, dynamic or commitment to sincerely support the child’s relationship with both parents.
One family in which I have an on-going role as the mediator, includes 3 children, all of whom state they “hate” their father and want to live with their mother full-time. The “Stone” parents report the children are adamant about moving to another state with their mother and are refusing all contact with their father, except for occasional shopping trips for sports equipment or back-to-school clothing. The mother insists the father is irresponsible and mean-spirited, withholding needed financial support. Mother states Father has all the power since he has an income and she is unemployed. Father insists he is losing “everything” since he pays child support and does not get to spend quality time with the children. I met with these parents in a joint session to mediate a new long-distance parenting plan. They agreed on #2, above, that Father will have significantly less time and impact on the children. Father does not want to pursue a legal route to attempt to remedy the situation; he wishes to mediate a plan that includes family counseling and gives him the right to exercise limited parenting time in the future, should the alignment between the children and mother shift, and allow the children to be free from the adult conflict.
As in all my initial mediation sessions with families experiencing contact resistance or refusal, I ask parents to come up with 6-8 statements of what they would like to create in order to support the best interests of their child(ren), and write these statements as the “vision” of success for the family. This is the first important step in uncovering and transforming parental dysfunction. Many parents openly report they want their child(ren) to freely love and enjoy both parents, have more ease in their co-parent communications, or create a schedule that maximizes the parenting time for each parent. In the case of the “Stone” family, the shared vision includes having children benefit from the resources of both parents and become independent thinkers as they grow through their teenage years.
It is a serious error for mediators to advise clients on what is best for them or their children, just like we cannot give legal advice. However, it is imperative mediators also not err by omitting relevant discussion addressing important factors in the family. When the children are resisting or refusing contact, important questions catalyze meaningful and significant conversation. In the case of the Stone family, I asked:
Have you had a professional assessment to determine if additional resources are needed to support the family?
How does Mother’s experience of Father affect the children’s opinions of Father?
What options can you consider to address the resistance and refusal dynamic in your family?
What specific goals do you have relating to the child’s relationship with each parent?
What special needs do the children have that may need to be addressed?
What are the expectations for communication between the child(ren) and each parent?
What, how and when will the parents communicate with each other on an on-going basis?
How can you provide an environment to keep the children out of the adult conflict?
One of the biggest mistakes parents make in complex custody and parenting time mediations is minimizing the impact of disrupted parent-child relationships. A lack of parenting time can deprive the child of important resources and interfere with normal development. Parenting time is a significant adult decision, not to be minimized by disgruntled “ex’s” or wished away by children speaking on behalf of a preferred parent. Mediators serve the family best when they invite discussion that supports both parents and invites them both to participate as fully and as safely as possible in the lives of their children.
The mother in the Stone family has tried to speak for the children as a way of supporting her alignment with them. As the mediator, I continuously remind the mother I am not aligning with her narrative or analysis of why the contact problems persist. I am focused only on facilitating authentic agreements and referring out the complex issues of loyalty binds or poor parenting to their professionals. With the Stone parents, I am focused on bringing the parents to a place of agreement on parenting time should the father choose to exercise his right to have specific time with the children at some point in the future.
As in the case of the Stone Family, mediations for families where a child is resisting or refusing contact require careful attention to the complexity of the family dynamic and awareness of the positive impact a mediator’s questions can have on the family.
For more information on helpful ways families and professionals can address contact problems, attend the Workshop for Resisted Parents and Professionals Who Work With Themon September 15, 2018 in Delaware, Ohio. More information on this training may be found here.
Amy Armstrong, PCI Certified Parent Coach®, Mediator, Parenting Coordinatorat The Center for Family Resolution www.thecenterforfamilyresolution.com