How parenting teenagers has given me greater insight into mediating

Damn teenagers are hard – on one hand you are bursting with pride as you watch them mature; and at exactly the same time they can tear out your heart, twist it into wrangled mess, nonchalantly return it to you and then act surprised when you express disappointment and dismay.

The past few weeks have presented me with several parenting challenges – some big, some small – nothing earth shattering – but certainly soul destroying. While sharing my challenges with friends, some have suggested that I pull out all stops with my mediating skills and it will be sorted in no time.

HA – if only it was that easy.

Now obviously I cannot put on a mediator hat with my teenagers as I am not an impartial, neutral participant in the dispute. Even if I did, I would quickly be dealt the “drop the work voice mum” line.

But, I have reflected a lot on the emotions I am feeling, and how I am responding, in the context of mediating, and my eyes have been well and truly opened in relation to a few key issues.

You can’t start moving towards a resolution until the cause of the dispute has been unpacked to some extent.

I have noticed that I have said over and over again, “I can’t believe you can’t see what you are doing” or “You are treating this place like a hotel, not a family”,  and there has not been once ounce of change in behaviour. I have had said to me, “just because you didn’t do it doesn’t mean I can’t” and “you are just so unfair”, on high rotation. Quite frankly it was all starting to feel a bit like a broken record leading to more and more frustration (more on that below).

So I applied the mediator’s lens and remembered that my teens and I had not really explored all of the matters and events that were in dispute and unpacked what our respective underlying drivers were. The result was that we still felt entrenched in our own positions, started only seeing our differences, moved further and further away from trying to find a common ground and became focussed on “winning the fight”. And then one teen attempted to get another family member involved to “take sides” rather than engaging in direct communication.

Sounding familiar ? See the parallels to a civil claim? Alarm bells should have been ringing.

It is really easy to make sweeping statements and use toxic language when you don’t feel heard.

My teens and I went through a few (very unhelpful) rounds of sparring before we got close to being in a place where fruitful discussions could take place.

Now, it generally takes a lot for me to lose my temper and I have always been known by family and friends as someone who will defer from passing judgment on anything until I have gathered all the information to enable me to make a decision. However, when faced with a situation when I felt that I was not being listened to, and my perspective was not understood, I was shocked at the sweeping statements and toxic comments I was capable of making. Even as they were coming out of my mouth I was thinking, “woah – that’s not nice”. My aim – to try and get a reaction, to shake some sense into the teen. The outcome – further distancing, tears and hurt (for all concerned).

A few days later, when I had the benefit of hindsight, I gained a greater understanding of two critical components of mediating:

  • if you hear sweeping generalisations and toxic language in a mediation/conflict situation, there is a very good chance that someone feels threatened in some way; perhaps they feel that their perspective has been ignored, not valued or not heard; and
  • if the initial stages of exploring what led to the dispute are avoided, or truncated, and there has been no real attempt to understand each other’s perspective – it is really, really easy for emotions to escalate and the parties move further away from resolution.

Take away from this – it is really important, particularly in settlement discussions, for all parties to listen to each other and try to understand the other person’s perspective – simply ignoring submissions a comment or not attempting to understand an expert’s a different opinion, just means that it will take longer for the dispute to be resolved, which may mean more damage and higher costs.

The “amygdala hijack” is real

Even as I’m writing this, and reliving the challenges over the past few weeks, my limbic system is on high alert, I am feeling the tightness in my chest and the anger and disappointment is starting to resurface – I am biting my tongue – a lot. Even with all the insights I have written about above, and armed with the knowledge of the neuropsychology of conflict, I still had to fight really hard to stay calm and rational.

This has been a really big lesson in what it feels like to experience an “amygdala hijack” – that primal urge to fight or flight (or freeze) when faced with a threat.

It really is impossible to consider another person’s perspective when an amygdala hijack is happening. Would I have compromised and accepted that my perspective may need changing when feeling those emotions – not in a million years.

So, as a mediator, I am now on even higher alert for signs of an amygdala hijack (from the parties or their lawyers) and actively intervene to give parties the tools to get that amygdala back under control.

Never underestimate the value of a neutral facilitator

Finally, I had the benefit of an understanding of the psychology of conflict, and could see what was happening as my teens and I stepped into the ring. However,  I could not have extracted myself from that situation without a (somewhat) neutral person assisting in drawing out some of the common ground, giving myself and my teens the opportunity to speak uninterrupted, and neutralising some of the toxicity.

It has been exhausting from all concerned – and is probably the reason my husband needed to go to a studio, crank the volume on his amp and play his guitar for a few hours – but we have got through this round with relationships intact and the air cleared.

And I have had a great first hand experience on the dynamics of what is going on in a conflict situation and steps that can be taken to bring it to a resolution.

If you would like to discuss any aspects of mediating, face to face or online, please contact me on 0421 048 456 or by email – You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to share information in relation to mediating generally. My available dates, and bookings, for both face to face and online mediations can be found on the website, or by calling me on 0421 048 456