Reviews & Media

Review by Fiona Garwood

I am usually a bit wary of books which claim to offer "the truth" about something, especially a subject such as families, children and separation or divorce. However, this book does offer convincing evidence and research findings about the potential dangers for children when their parents continue with high levels of conflict following separation or divorce, in a most effective way.

Robert Emery, the author is Professor of Psychology and Director of Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia, as well as a researcher, mediator, therapist and father of five children. He draws on his research and clinical work along with the experience of his own divorce to give parents advice and guidance through the difficult journey of their grief, pain, towards adjustment and co-operation.

Written mainly for parents, the book is in a conversational style, easy to read and with interesting case examples. Emery's key messages to parents are: "Children whose parents put them first from the start have a tremendous advantage over those whose parents cannot separate their feelings about their failed marriage from their feelings about the coparenting (sic) partnership that will last the rest of their lives", page 6 and "if you can be a parent first, even while facing all the challenges and changes in your life, then your kids will be free to be what you want them to be and what they deserve to be: just kids. Call it your take-home message, your mantra, your affirmation - whatever you want. Just believe it", page 14 . These messages recur throughout the book.

His chapter on Riding Alone on the Emotional Roller Coaster of Grief shows a deep appreciation of the torrent of emotions which can overwhelm parents. Robert Emery warns parents about the need to justify their thoughts and actions and the understandable tendency to project their own feelings onto their children, to assume that the children will share the parent's own views of what has happened.

A later chapter is devoted to Keeping Emotions out of Legal Negotiations. Emery warns readers that "legal issues" may be unresolved emotions in disguise. He contends that mediated outcomes are the ones most parents want for their children. The benefits of these are: both parents continued involvement in the important decisions in their children's lives, regular continuing contact between children and a non resident parent.

Family mediators will welcome the evidence based on Emery's research from 1987, where seventy one families on the verge of court contested custody cases, were randomly assigned either to continue in the legal route or to be offered mediation. Twelve years on, reports from these sets of families involved in the earlier study show that 52% the non resident parents in the mediated group still had weekly conversations with their children compared to 14% of the non resident parents who had used the court instead of mediation, 26% of non resident parents in the mediated group still saw their children once a week compared with 9% of the non resident parents who had litigated.

I would highly recommend the book. Mediators will find the messages reassuring. Trainee mediators would benefit from reading the book. There is a lot of useful material for other professionals: counsellors, legal practitioners. For separating or divorced parents in the UK, I think the book has a lot of sound advice and guidance. There are of course legal and social differences to be taken into account. An omission, if I had to mention one, is the lack of any research findings from the UK, apart from John Bowlby's work on attachment. However, Emery would probably point out that as this is a book for parents, it is not the place for extensive references!

Readers who seek more information can find Robert Emery's key note address Recent Research in Mediation, Litigation and young Adults' Response to Divorce given at the Family Mediation Conference June 2004 on the FMS website

There is also information on Robert Emery's website:

October 2004

Fiona Garwood is a mediator with Family Mediation Lothian and a mediation trainer. She was until recently Assistant Director (Mediation) with Family Mediation Scotland.