Print Posted by Virginia L Colin, Ph.D. on 06/16/2017

High Conflict Parenting and Resolution: A Valuable Lesson From My First Mediation

High Conflict Parenting and Resolution:  A Valuable Lesson From My First Mediation

Back in the 1990’s, I had a friend who had been in a custody battle for more than a year and a half.  Let’s call him Ben.  His kids were living with him, and his ex-wife was trying again and again to persuade the Court to return them to her. She represented herself, but my friend had hired an attorney and he had spent about $45,000.00 up to this point.  That’s a lot of money!  

The awful thing was, the case still wasn’t settled.  At the most recent court hearing, the judge had ordered the parents to do what the Guardian Ad Litem recommended. [1].  Neither parent thought this was a good plan.

Consequently, it seemed likely that they would be back in court all too soon.  In the meantime, the kids were living in a psychological war zone.  My Quaker background had led me to develop some conflict resolution skills.  So, I asked Ben and his ex whether they would like to try a different approach. They both said “Yes!”  I was not officially labelled as their mediator, but that’s what I ended up being.

Before I met his ex, everyone I knew thought Ben was a nice guy.  So did I, in fact.  Sitting in front of his ex, however, he was a different person - full of rage and judgment.  And, she was equally hostile.  There were even dual protective orders forbidding them from entering each other’s houses.  This case had to be handled by caucus,[2] so I spent the entire time carrying proposals about the kids' schedules back and forth.

When I listened to the mom, she would tell me what a horrible person Ben was — a harsh, punitive, nasty person who did not understand or care about his kids at all. She also said which days and times she wanted the kids to be with her. I left the rage and blame with her, and simply told Ben her schedule requests.

When I listened to Ben, he told me what a terrible person she was — a half-crazy, inconsistent, bossy, selfish, chaotic mother who couldn’t see any of her own faults and blamed everything on everyone else. He also said what schedule he thought would be good. I left the rage and blame with him and conveyed his scheduling requests. Mediation thus protected them from getting caught up in hostile emotions and let them slowly make progress toward a shared plan.

 Matters that would be small details for some co-parents, like whether a Friday evening exchange between parents was going to happen at 9:00, 9:15, or 9:30, mattered a lot to each of these parents, so mediation took many, many conversations, spread over a period of three or four months.

With these very angry parents, who had zero trust for each other, mediation was long and hard. But the key is, it worked.  Eventually, we developed a parenting schedule that was acceptable to both parties.  It wasn’t either one’s ideal, but it was something that worked well and that they could each live with.

The mom incorporated the mediated Parenting Plan into a Consent Order and both parents signed and sent it to the judge.  Probably with a great sense of relief, the judge signed off on it.  Finally, after almost two years in a custody battle, those kids would have a stable schedule and know in advance when they would be with each of their parents.

The impressive thing, was that the mediated agreement endured.  These parents, who had been fighting in court for the previous 20 months, never went back to court to resolve another question about raising their kids.  In this angry, distrustful environment, the kids did not live easy, rosy lives, but they had a degree of stability and predictability that they had not enjoyed for a very long time.

One of the lessons I take from all of this, is that mediation can work even when there is a very high level of conflict and a very low level of trust between parents.  For the sake of the kids, it is certainly worth a try.  Courtroom custody battles usually have very bad consequences for children.  Don’t leave their schedules and futures in the hands of a stranger. 

[1] A Guardian Ad Litem is a lawyer or other guardian appointed by the court to represent the interests of children in legal actions.

 [2] Caucuses are meetings that mediators hold separately with each side of a dispute. 


Virginia L. Colin, Ph.D. is a professional family mediator, a talk radio show host, and Vice President of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM).  Formerly a research psychologist, she has been providing family mediation services since 1999.  She specializes in helping couples and ex-couples develop co-parenting plans and financial agreements that support their children’s security and healthy development and their own well-being. Dr. Colin has written two books:  Human Attachment (1996) and The Guide to Low-Cost Divorce in Virginia (2014).  She has been a foster parent, a married parent, a divorced single parent, and a remarried stepparent.  Contact Dr. Colin at



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