I hated middle school. Not the school itself, but that period in my life. Suddenly, the world demanded so much more from me. Sometimes I felt up to the task, but more often I was filled with anxiety about all the new responsibilities and opportunities before me.
My growing intellectual abilities enabled me to challenge and debate my parents about their beliefs and values, which was fun and gave me a sense of independence. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t look at it quite the same way I did. To them I was rebellious, defiant, disrespectful and out of control.
From there, it got worse as we spiraled downward in a power struggle over almost everything; from minor things like what I planned to wear to school to more important issues like who I was hanging out with and why I was getting an “F” in science. The more they tried to correct my behavior, the more I withdrew. Eventually, we weren’t communicating at all, except in anger. In desperation, my parents took me to a therapist to see what was wrong with me. Turns out I was a normal kid.
Now, as the father of a 12-year-old, I’m on the other side of the power struggle. But I have access to a quick, inexpensive and effective tool that wasn’t available to my parents: mediation.
In traditional mediation, the people who are experiencing conflict voluntarily come together in a neutral setting to have a confidential conversation about their issues with the help of a trained, impartial mediator. The mediator guides them through a process that involves exploring what is important to each of them, and then helps them come up with solutions that will meet their needs. It’s not about compromise; it’s about collaboration and creativity and bridge-building. It’s not so much about the past and finding fault or blame, as it is about restoring and healing the relationship and looking to the future.
For parents and adolescents who may be experiencing conflict, the mediation model includes two mediators; one adult and one teen. This approach addresses, to a certain extent, an adolescent’s concern that an adult mediator might be biased in favor of the parent. But even more importantly, it addresses the ages-old refrain, spoken almost universally by adolescents to their parents, “You just don’t understand me!” It turns out that a teen mediator actually is better at decoding what the adolescent is trying to communicate and, through artful questioning and encouragement, is able to help the parent to understand. By involving a teen mediator in the process, the adolescent is more likely to feel heard and respected.
It works the other way as well. A parent who is trying very hard during mediation will still say things that are interpreted as harsh or judgmental by the adolescent, who then, according to pattern, either lashes out or withdraws. The teen mediator can stop that pattern by helping the parent to reframe the concern in an accurate and respectful way so that the adolescent will appreciate the concern, rather than being defensive.
The final benefit of using a teen mediator along with an adult mediator is that the mediators are able to model appropriate, respectful and effective adult/teen communication, which is not lost on the family members. While trying to help the family to work through the particular conflict of the moment, the mediators are also coaching the family members on how to work through their future conflicts on their own.
This process works. Parents and their teenagers frequently say during follow-up evaluations after mediation that they have never communicated better and are using the tools they learned during the mediation. Of course, mediation is not a panacea for all ills, and there will clearly be situations that would be better served by family therapy or other interventions. However, keep mediation in mind as an option.
My parents and I gained a healthier relationship when we understood each other. Now, my daughter and I are extending that legacy by using mediation tools. Even if we don’t reach resolution on a particular issue, we will at least understand each other better, and isn’t that a great place to start?
Chip Coker, former executive director of Community Mediation Services, a local non-profit agency that provides mediation services for many types of conflicts, hosts the annual Lane County Peacebuilder Awards, trains volunteer mediators and conducts public workshops. Please call 541-344-5366 for more information. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site; vist us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.