How Mediation Affects Parents and Children

The negative psychological effects of divorce on parents and children may be directly or indirectly a function of the adversarial approach, which often maintains and even fuels hostility between divorcing parents. Mediation should provide psychological benefits for both parents and children, such as decreasing bitterness and tension and increasing communication between the parents. The research findings are not completely clear, however. While some studies indicate that couples in mediation show greater cooperation and improved interpersonal relationships after the divorce settlement, some studies have found no consistent differences in psychological adjustment that could be attributed to the mediation itself. These inconsistent findings may be due to pre existing differences between the mediation and litigation groups. Other studies found that the couples who had mediation were more satisfied with the divorce settlement and reported doing much better up to one year following the settlement.

Mothers and fathers appear to differ in their satisfaction with mediated settlements. These differences, however, may be related to the type of custody presumption applicable in the states where the research was done and differences in custody outcomes between mediation and litigation. Generally, litigation is more likely to result in the award of sole custody to the mother. In states where the primary presumption of custody favors the mother in a sole custody arrangement, mothers tended to be more satisfied with their settlements than fathers. Mediation tends to produce more joint legal custody agreements, and in those states where the custody presumption favored sole mother custody, fathers who mediated were more satisfied than those who litigated. But in states where the custody presumption favored joint legal custody, both fathers and mothers who mediated were more satisfied than those who went to court.

Compared to litigation, mediated settlements also resulted in both parents maintaining greater involvement with their children. In one long-term study, nine years after the initial divorce settlement, couples who used mediation reported more contact with each other than those whose settlements were litigated. As well, both parents were more involved in their children's lives and reported more frequent communication with the other spouse about the child or children.

It is logical to presume that mediation will positively influence children's adjustment, by improving parental cooperation and communication and maintaining contact between the noncustodial parent and the children. Studies of the effects of divorce on children's adjustment strongly support the positive effects of increased parental cooperation and decreased conflict in the post-divorce period. For mediation, however, the research is surprisingly sparse. Studies have failed to show significant improvements for children as a result of the parents' mediation. This lack of empirical support parallels the mixed evidence on the benefits of mediation for the parents' adjustment.

The critical question is whether one should expect such enduring effects on children and parents. The benefits of mediation appear to occur primarily in the short term by improving compliance, reducing relitigation, and decreasing the time required for the couple to reach a settlement. While mediation has significant benefits over litigation, the research evidence is far from conclusive, particularly concerning the link with improved psychological adjustment of parents and their children. Mediation has an important place in helping families through the initial stress of divorce, but it should not be viewed as a solution for coping with the long-term issues that arise after the dissolution of a marriage.


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Custody, and Mediation. New York: Guilford Press, 1994. Emery, Robert E. Sage Developmental Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Series, Vol. 14: Marriage, Divorce, and Children's Adjustment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999. Emery, Robert E., and Melissa M. Wyer. "Divorce Mediation.''

American Psychologist 42 (1987):472-480. Emery, Robert E., Sheila G. Matthews, and Melissa M. Wyer. "Child Custody Mediation and Litigation: Further Evidence on the Differing Views of Mothers and Fathers.'' Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 59 (1991):410-418. Hahn, Robert A., and David M. Kleist. "Divorce Mediation: Research and Implications for Family and Couples Counseling.'' Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 8 (2000):165-171. Johnston, Janet R., and Linda E. G. Campbell. Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Kelly, Joan B. "The Determination of Child Custody.'' Future of Children: Children and Divorce 4 (Spring 1994):121-142.

Gary Resnick

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