When it comes to the resolution of co-parenting-related matters, programs and services such as divorce education and therapeutic family mediation are much more than dispute resolution devices. More than anything else, these are vital interventions that should serve primarily to increase parents’ attunement to their children’s needs and “best interests.”
Divorced high conflict couples can be and are being helped, with interventions such as divorce education, family mediation, family therapy, and parenting coordination, and the passage of time, to achieve more amicable parenting arrangements. Today we will examine the uses of divorce education and therapeutic family mediation; in my next installment I will focus on post-divorce family therapy and parenting coordination as key interventions that assist parents to separate their former marital hostilities from their ongoing parenting responsibilities, and to also enable them to become more attuned to their children’s needs as co-parents.
First, a word about the passage of time. As the dust settles and neither parent is threatened by the possible loss of one’s children via a sole custody or primary residence order, it may be expected that parental conflict levels will naturally decline with the passage of time, as parents learn to separate their former spousal hostilities from their ongoing parenting responsibilities. Some parents will enter into a cooperative co-parenting routine, while others will fare better within a parallel parenting approach, where their direct contact with each other is limited. Yet others will require support or specialized intervention to shield their children from their ongoing conflict.
Children’s needs for protection from parental conflict must be addressed within any co-parenting arrangement after separation, and a full range of supports must be made available to parents in high conflict situations. Within these programs, children’s needs become a means of connecting the parents in a positive direction at a time when conflict has divided them.
Divorce Education. Given the lack of information available to divorcing families about what to do, what to expect, and the services which might be available to them, divorce education programs that make such information available prior to any dispute resolution process are vital. Parents who are oriented to the divorce process and the impact of divorce on family members are better prepared for negotiation, mediation, and other non-adversarial dispute resolution alternatives, and better able to keep the needs of their children at the forefront of their negotiations. Divorce education programs also offer a means to expose divorcing parties to mediation as an alternative mechanism of dispute resolution. Divorce educators with expertise in the expected effects of divorce on children and parents can be instrumental in helping parents to recognize the potential psychological, social and economic consequences of divorce and, on that foundation, promote parenting plans conducive to children maintaining meaningful, positive post-divorce relationships.
Parent education regarding children’s needs and interests during and after the divorce transition, followed by a therapeutic approach to family mediation, offers a highly effective and efficient means of facilitating the development of cooperative parenting plans. Within such an approach, parent education may be used to introduce the option of equal or shared parenting as a viable alternative, and to reduce parents' anxiety about this new living arrangement. Mediation would then help parents work through the development of an equal or shared parenting plan, and implementing the plan in as cooperative a manner as possible. Specialized parent education programs have also been developed for high conflict couples.
Family Mediation. Mediation, as an alternative method of dispute resolution, has considerable (and as yet largely untapped) potential in establishing equal or shared parenting as the norm, rather than the exception, for divorced families. In the majority of non-violent high conflict cases, both parents are capable and loving caregivers and have at least the potential to minimize their conflict and cooperate with respect to their parenting responsibilities within an equal or shared parenting framework. Mediation has given evidence of its power to settle complex, highly emotional disputes and reach agreements that are durable in post-divorce conflict, and there is strong empirical support for the use of mediation in this arena. In public and private sectors, in voluntary and mandatory services, and when provided both early and late in the natural course of these disputes, family mediation has been consistently successful in resolving conflicts related to child custody and post-divorce parenting.
Family mediation is the main instrument whereby parents may be assisted in the development of a child-focused co-parenting plan. An educative approach should be an integral part of such a mediation process, with a primary focus on children’s needs during and after the divorce process. And combining divorce education with therapeutic family mediation has proven to be a highly effective method of intervention with highly conflicted parents. Divorce education would provide parents with an orientation to the divorce process and available services, a focus on children’s needs and interests in divorce, an exploration of post-divorce co-parenting alternatives, and training in communication, negotiation and problem-solving skills. Therapeutic family mediation would entail four stages: a thorough and informed assessment to determine whether parents are ready to enter into therapeutic family mediation, and whether co-parenting is indicated; an exploration of co-parenting options and actively promoting a co-parenting plan that meets unique children’s needs; facilitation of negotiations toward the development of an individualized co-parenting plan, which outlines specific living arrangements, schedules, roles and responsibilities; and continuing support/troubleshooting during the implementation of the plan.
Once a co-parenting plan is developed, parents may need the services of a family mediator to assist in their ongoing parenting negotiations; they should be urged to return for mediation beyond a trial period, as future issues develop or past difficulties re-emerge.