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Child-Informed Mediation Results in More Positive Mediation Outcomes

Psychology, Public Policy, and LawChild-informed mediation appears to result in more positive mediation outcomes than mediation as usual. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2013, Vol. 19, No. 3, 271-281

A Randomized Controlled Trial of Child-Informed Mediation

Authors

Robin H. Ballard, Indiana University – Bloomington
Amy Holtzworth-Munroe, Indiana University – Bloomington
Amy G. Applegate, Indiana University – Bloomington
Brian M. D’Onofrio, Indiana University – Bloomington
John E. Bates, Indiana University – Bloomington

Abstract

With over 1 million children in the United States affected by parental divorce or separation each year, there is interest in interventions to mitigate the potential negative consequences of divorce on children. Family mediation has been widely heralded as a better solution than litigation; however, mediation does not work for all families. One proposed improvement involves bringing the child’s perspective to mediation, to motivate parents to create better agreements. In this randomized controlled trial, we compared new child-informed forms of mediation against a mediation-as-usual (MAU) control condition. In child-focused (CF) mediation, parents are presented with general information about children and divorce; in child-inclusive (CI) mediation, the child(ren) are interviewed and parents are provided with feedback about their specific case. Given the similar focus and goals of CF and CI, main study analyses compared a combined CF and CI group (n = 47) to 22 MAU cases. The CF and CI interventions had a positive effect on mediation outcomes relative to MAU (e.g., parents were more likely to report learning something useful, and mediators wanted their cases to be CF and CI). Cases in CF and CI reached comparable rates of agreement as cases in MAU, but CF and CI agreements included more parenting time for nonresidential parents, and were more likely to include provisions for coparental communication and provisions assumed to be better for child outcomes. Study results are encouraging and should provide support for wider program evaluation efforts to continue refining the CI and CF interventions.

Keywords

divorce, divorce mediation, child-focused mediation, child-inclusive mediation, randomized controlled trial

Summary of the Research

Sixty-nine families undergoing parental divorce or separation in Indiana were randomly assigned to three mediation conditions: Child-Inclusive (CI; n = 13); Child-Focused (CF; n = 34); and Mediation-as-Usual (MAU; n = 22). Child-inclusive and child-focused mediation are interventions developed in Australia to improve mediation outcomes for children. Child-inclusive (CI) mediation takes into consideration the specific characteristics of the child or children at issue whereas child-focused (CF) mediation uses general information about children and divorce to improve mediation outcomes. These two types of interventions (CI and CF) were grouped together to represent child-informed mediation, taking into consideration either specific or general issues regarding children and divorce, and compared to mediation-as-usual, which did not include any general or specific information about how divorce affects children.

“Child-informed mediation approaches are designed to promote protective factors by motivating parents to consider the perspective of their children during mediation. This process ideally leads parents to reduce conflict, make more developmentally appropriate arrangements for their children, be more available emotionally, and keep children out of parental disagreements” (p. 272).

Child-informed mediation included the participation of a child consultant, in addition to the mediator. The child consultant met with the parents at the beginning of the mediation to provide information about the effects of divorce on children (in the CI group, the child consultant interviewed the child/children and provided specific feedback to the parents regarding their child/children; in the CF group, the child/children were not interviewed but the child consultant provided general information to the parents). Participating families in the various groups were asked to complete questionnaires about their mediation experiences. In addition, the mediation agreements were analyzed for content. Results indicated that the parents in the child-informed mediation conditions were more likely to report that they learned something in mediation. With respect to the content of the mediation agreements, child-informed mediation agreements included more parenting time for the nonresidential parent on weekdays, weeknights, and weekends than in the mediation-as-usual agreements. In addition, child-informed mediation agreements were more likely to address communication between parents and the importance of parent-child relationships than were mediation-as-usual agreements. Finally, more child-related rationales were included in the child-informed mediation agreements. The study authors conclude:

“The results of this study provide evidence that child-informed mediation interventions, designed to include the child’s perspective and to motivate parents to focus on their children’s needs, are liked and are perceived as helpful by parents and mediators. They result in mediation agreements that are judged as being more likely than MAU [mediation-as-usual] agreements to facilitate positive child adjustment to divorce.” (p. 278)

Translating Research into Practice

A good amount of research has indicated that children of divorced parents are more likely to have internalizing problems, externalizing problems, and academic difficulties than children whose parents remain together. In addition, children of divorced parents are also more likely to demonstrate relationship instability as adults. It appears that the key determinant of poor child outcomes after divorce is interparental conflict. Thus, interventions that buffer children from the negative effects of divorce or separation, and help to reduce interparental conflict are important. There is a small body of research comparing mediation to litigation but the available literature does show that mediation leads to more parental satisfaction, better parental understanding of child needs, and a better co-parenting relationship. The current research shows that the manner in which mediation efforts are handled may well impact outcomes for both parents and children. A mediation approach that focuses parents on the needs of and impact on their children appears to result in more positive outcomes, both in terms of more parenting time for the nonresidential parent and more statements about the importance of low conflict between parents. The types of messages relayed to parents by child consultants in the child-informed mediation groups included: the impact of interparental conflict on children and the need to develop a civil co-parenting relationship and strong parental alliance; the need for children to have a strong relationship with each parent and the value of quality time with each child; the need for young children to see parents frequently; the need for older children to spend time with peers; and the need for a safe and secure household. These types of messages help to focus the parents on the needs of their children in developing mediation agreements. Mediators and evaluators can use these principles to focus parents in conflict on the needs of their children.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

The authors also describe results of comparisons between the two different child-informed approaches (child-focused v. child-inclusive), although this was not the primary focus of the research. Further research with a larger sample size is important to address the generalizability of these findings.

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