Written by John Hind

Family Mediator at Compass Resolution

Mediator (Family/Workplace), Lawyer, Mediation Practice Consultant, Family Consultant, Group Facilitator, Conflict Management Consultant, Skills trainer.

In this article, I share my experience of doing just that, in the hope encouraging more family mediators to take on similar, seemingly intractable situations, and encouraging parents, in similar situations, to grab the opportunity that mediation offers.

With a very hostile parent, the key challenge and skill is, how to support them to positively engage with the other parent, in a mediation process which needs them to take some responsibility for working with the other parent to improve the co-parent relationship and where necessary, make the necessary changes to their behaviour.

A few months ago, I met Sheila for a MIAM. She had apparently been told by her solicitor to see me to ‘get her MIAM certificate’, so she could go to court.

As a mediator, I knew I was going to have to tread the fine line of helping Sheila to positively engage in mediation whilst enabling her to retain and protect her sense of self-worth, self-image and integrity…

Having intently listened to Sheila for about 30 mins, I knew it was going to be a difficult mediation when, having established some rapport, I carefully and sensitively got round to asking Sheila; Can you think of anything you might be able to do to improve the parenting relationship with Bill?

Although her reply was very hostile, the intensity of her response and what she complained about also told me much about what she valued and needed for herself and from Bill. This gave me hope and something to focus on! So, I decided to meet with her former partner, Bill before deciding whether to offer to mediate.

From the hostile parent’s perspective, the question I asked Sheila can feel incredibly tough to answer openly and honestly, when the truth they hold about the other parent is locked away in a heavily rehearsed, reinforced and guarded negative narrative, rooted in blame and self- justification, serving to protect a fragile self-esteem and avoid taking responsibility, for the situation and outcome.

This certainly seemed true of Sheila.

As a mediator, I knew I was going to have to tread the fine line of helping Sheila to positively engage in mediation whilst enabling her to retain and protect her sense of self-worth, self-image and integrity, to say nothing of ensuring that Bill did not feel neglected along the way.

Herein lies the main challenge and risk for me of mediating cases of seemingly implacably hostile parents, where one parent absorbs so much of the energy and time in mediation, leaving everyone exhausted and the mediator feeling ‘de-skilled’, wondering what else could have been done.

During the pre-mediation meeting I decided that if, among other things, I could help Sheila in mediation to work towards acknowledging that Bill’s perspective was valid, without seeing him as right and her as wrong, I might be able to make some headway with helping her take some responsibility for improving the situation with Bill. The same, of course, went for Bill.

I strongly believe that, so many parents, who sadly end up in court, in fact have the capacity and, with the right patient support, are able to find the motivation, when it comes to their children, to develop a better parent relationship and deserve the opportunity to be able to do so.

When I met Sheila, she described how she was feeling extremely vulnerable, anxious and angry, as she told me all about Bill and how, about 2 years ago he seemed to suddenly change. To her, he had become a ‘different person’. Indeed, he seemed to be suffering from ‘some kind of personality disorder’. She described how, having ‘abandoned his family’, he had become more distant, more interested in his new family, more angry, volatile and controlling.

In my experience, it is quite common for two parents to believe each other to be controlling. This this is what they may truly feel, as they each seek to ‘win back’ some control over what they perceive and believe as control being exerted by each other, especially when the past pattern has involved one parent ‘being controlled’ who is now, through support, able to assert themselves.

For Sheila, it was clear that the more abandoned, rejected and angry she felt, the more she felt the need to attack and punish Bill, as the person she blamed for her predicament and for ‘making her’ feel the way she did. She was punishing him in the only way she knew how, through the children.

According to Bill, Sheila constantly change her mind about when he could see Tommy, aged 5 and Chrissie, aged 7, to the point that Bill had turned up for one visit to be told that the children were not there and he had got the wrong day. He later discovered that they had been told that ‘he had not bothered to turn up’. He was completely frustrated and had, quite simply, had enough.

Sheila demonstrated very little insight into of how her conflict with Bill might be affecting the children. When I sensitively asked her about this, she neatly and expertly reframed the situation, laying the blame clearly at Bill’s door.

I had to decide, in the pre-mediation meeting, whether I was going to be able to do any useful work with her and Bill, in mediation. On the other hand, what option did this couple have? Were they to be added to the growing heap of cases passing through the over-crowded court system?

I have always felt it very important to remain hopeful and optimistic for my clients and ensure that they feel this optimism from me, beginning with my welcoming them into mediation and commending them on their decision to work together, with me, to reach their own decisions.

I strongly believe that, so many parents, who sadly end up in court, in fact have the capacity and, with the right patient support, are able to find the motivation, when it comes to their children, to develop a better parent relationship and deserve the opportunity to be able to do so.

Let’s face it, our brains are hardwired for the self and external awareness, rational reflection, and self-restraint, necessary to succeed in mediation. The equipment exists? It is the guidance and practice that is so often lacking and this often starts in mediation, continuing outside mediation, with the support of coaches, therapists and a range of court based and private organisations.

Sheila had spent the last few years filling a warehouse of resentment about Bill which had clearly been influencing her behaviour. Although I am not a therapist, I was convinced that much of Sheila’s worse behaviour towards Bill, often in front of the children, labelling her to many as ‘implacably hostile’, had been in a high state of alert (amygdala), effectively shutting down other parts of the brain responsible for reflection, rational response and decision making (Pre-frontal cortex)

In mediation, there seemed an almost visible tussle going on in Sheila’s mind between her reflective self, as she listened to Bill, with the occasional positive response, and her reptilian self*, ordering her reflective self to shut down, as she sporadically erupted over Bill, when she felt challenged or threatened, by something he said or did.

Bill, for his part seemed to be well practiced in saying very little on these occasions, to antagonise Sheila, although he readily admitted that he had ‘lost it’ on a few occasions in the past and now finds it hard to be civil to Sheila, ‘after everything she has put him through’. He was pushing back.

It was about 1 hour into a hard mediation, as I was attempting once again to calm the process down, when a small breakthrough came, as Sheila listened to the following interaction between me and Bill. Mediators sometimes call these ‘light bulb moments’.

‘What does Sheila say you do which justifies in her mind you not seeing the children’.

I repeated this question, more slowly for a second time, turning briefly to Sheila, encouraging her to listen and reassuring her that I will return to her in a moment, to balance the dialogue.

‘Well’, Bill said, ‘she could say that I am sometimes a bit volatile and loud’.

I went on, ‘What does she say you do to make her think you are loud’

Bill responded; ‘Well, I guess, that sometimes I can lose it, but it is not surprising in the circumstances

Ignoring the ‘ but…’ part of Bill’s answer and intuitively sensing Bill’s willingness to take some responsibility, I asked him; ‘What does Sheila think your opinion is of her’. I flicked my head to catch Sheila’s eyes. She was listening for Bill’s reply. I sensed the importance of the moment.

I think she would say, I hate her’. I repeat his words very slowly back to Bill; ‘You believe, that she thinks you hate her’.

So, what do you think you might be able to do to help her decide that the kids should see you’.

In essence, I was asking Bill what he thought he could do to ensure that Sheila hates him less or, put in non-violent communicationterms, having identified his perception of Sheila’s feelings of hatred towards him, I was asking Bill to consider what Sheila might need from him for her to feel differently and therefore, perhaps begin to behave differently towards him.

Sheila quickly replied; ‘I don’t hate you, I just find you…….’ At which point she listed what she finds most frustrating about Bill. This gave us all an insight into what Sheila was needing from Bill and some things for us to work with.

The dialogue with Bill concluded with Bill offering to do a number of things and make a number of changes for Sheila.

Attention then turned to Sheila and, although there was some resistance, the powerful instinct of reciprocity momentarily won over the self-justification, blame narrative, resulting in a subtle shift of attitude, approach and a willingness to listen to what Bill was feeling and needed, in this situation.

Slowly but surely, momentum took over and the dialogue became one of what Bill and Sheila could each do to build confidence in each other to work together as parents for their children.

Bill agreed not to ring Sheila all the time. Detailed drop off and collection arrangements were agreed. Sheila agreed to produce the children on time and prepare them for their visit. In all this, I emphasised to Sheila and Bill that they were now treading a new path and had an opportunity to create something special for their children, a good parenting relationship they and their children could look back on in years to come, with pride. Something that was really worth working for.

Mediation had given Bill and Sheila an opportunity to live up to their parenting responsibility which, I am very pleased to say, they were able to do.

I cannot tell you that Sheila and Bill left their first mediation session with a skip in their step but they readily booked another session and another. Against the odds and with some support, they grabbed the mediation opportunity, took responsibility and their story ended well.

As they left their first mediation session I explained that, in my mind, they had chosen to move on from their ‘old relationship’. It was no longer fit for their purpose. It needed redesigning and constantly working at to be fit for the most important purpose in their lives, that of jointly raising Tommy and Chrissie to be well balanced, healthy individuals.

Additional Reading/Resources

If you are facing court alone many people have found Lucy Reed’s book, ‘Family Court Without A Lawyer’ particularly useful.

You may also find our page on How To Tell Your Children You Are Divorcing – Recommended Books useful.

The Handover Book by Ashley Palmer is a unique and simple communication book for separated families. It will allow them both to always be aware of what is happening in their children’s busy lives as they go from one household to another. It’s a way of communicating the important things they both need to know about their children, while keeping your relationship as parents friendly and calm.

Charlotte Friedman has written Breaking Upwards – How To Manage The Emotional Impact Of Separation. Charlotte offers calm, therapeutic advice on everything from how to manage loneliness to letting go of grievance, and draws on illuminating case studies to answer questions such as:  How long before I get over this divorce? How do I tell the children?  How do I cope with the new partner in my ex’s life?


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    "I strongly believe that, so many parents, who sadly end up in court, in fact have the capacity and, with the right patient support, are able to find the motivation, when it comes to their children, to develop a better parent relationship and deserve the opportunity to be able to do so" John Hind is a member of our Family Law Panel....

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