During the pandemic, many families have spent more time together than they were used to. Families have had to cope with difficult economic situations, home teaching, a new daily routines, and conflicts that arose from the tense atmosphere. Tensions between people, small misunderstandings, or significant conflicts can usually be managed with time and space. But when people are locked at home, conflicts tend to escalate. Most families share only a few square meters.
We want to introduce the possible impacts when family members decide to speak about the situation, as opposed to just hoping it will get better; And we want to describe what happens when they also take the children’s perspective into account. The Family Mediation Center in Brno, which usually deals with family disputes, especially divorce cases, is now experiencing unusual clients. Whole families are asking for a place where they can have a conversation about their situation.
In one case in the spring 2020, our Mediation center received a call from a father (let’s call him Jack), who gave details about his family’s unpleasant situation at home, where all members could hardly speak to each other. The family consists of two adults (Jack and Jill) and two teenage children (Tommy and Jeri). The children are not only in a bad mental state, but Jeri’s physical health also seems to be affected. She is not eating very well and is losing weight. After the premediation talk with Jack, we offered him and his wife a chance to speak about their situation during a mediation session. At this point, it seemed like a typical mediation. Two angry parents argue about misunderstandings, purported injustice from the other, and blame for the current unpleasant situation. The conversation was based on accusations where each parent was trying to defend her/himself but simultaneously convince the other he or she needed to change something. They argued about which parent’s approach was more harmful to the children.
From the perspective of transformative mediators, looking at conflicts as a crisis of human interaction between parties helps us look at disputes between the parties with no pressure to find the solution for them. From our perspective, the parties need help to overcome this crisis and restore a constructive interaction. The occurrence of conflict tends to destabilize the parties’ experience of both – self and others – so they interact in more vulnerable and more self-absorbed ways than before. People in a conflict tend to experience a sense of both relative weakness and relative self-absorption. These negative dynamics often feed into each other in a vicious circle that intensifies each party’s sense of weakness and self-absorption.
In Jack and Jill’s family, their interactional crisis was intensified by the lockdown. They weren’t able to communicate together. But it is challenging not to communicate when close together in one house 24/7 for several months. Trying not to say much makes things even worse because you seem to be detached. So, trying to stay hidden you are accused of not participating in family life. You try to apply some techniques from TV or Google, but then you are pushing too much. And you feel it is not your fault. It is hard to be a responsible parent for your children when they can observe every single moment of your struggle. Jack and Jill were convinced they were doing everything possible to protect their children from experiencing the harmful effects of this situation. There were conflicts between the parents and their children as well. But was the lockdown the reason, or not?
Tommy and Jeri were fully aware of their parents’ situation. They felt the atmosphere of the cold war. Their approach was to disconnect from the situation, put on their headphones, turn on their computer, or deep dive into their homeschooling. The children’s decision was not to bother the parents with any of their problems, fears, or needs. They felt going to the kitchen or living room was like walking on eggshells. But the less they visited those rooms, the less they completed their household chores. That was the point when new conflicts in the family arose. So, it wasn’t just the parents trapped in the vicious circle but the whole family. And then Jeri’s health problems started.
In our mediation center, we believe that despite the destabilizing impact of the conflict, people have the ability to rebound and recover from its alienating effects. People can make dynamic shifts along two dimensions – empowerment and recognition – and have the capacity to move back into their sense of personal strength or self-confidence (the empowerment shift) and their sense of openness or responsiveness to the other (the recognition shifts). The challenge for this family was how to support the relational self-determination of the family members. But what kind of self-determination for parents might be there when the sympathy for their children’s real feelings and perspective were not part of the conversation, since the children were excluded from it? Self-determination can be effective only through the recognition of the perspective of other person – adults or children.
So we started the mediation with the parents, but after the second meeting, we involved their children too. For the parents, the fact that we could offer help for the whole family was why they chose us. In our practice, children have their own support person, a child specialist, to whom they can speak separately. Subsequently, they have the chance to decide if they want to be a part of the mediation process on their own, or they can choose to have their child specialist attend the mediation and speak for them. In this case, after the first meeting with the child specialist, the children decided to be part of the whole process with their child specialist. At the third mediation session, we were sitting at a round table of 7 people – parents, children, the child specialist, and two mediators. The child specialist presented what he was discussing with children and focused on the awful atmosphere at home, thanks to which the children were not able to speak with their parents. The children were worried that raising the issue would cause another conflict. Getting such information from the child specialist was the most intense part of the mediation. Even though the atmosphere was very emotional, all the family members agreed to do something about that and that it was the commitment of all family members, not only the parents. They were having a conversation about difficult topics, but they decided to go through them together to consider all perspectives, not only the adults’ views.
After this first experience, they came to the mediation session only together, as a family. The children always had the chance to speak with their child specialist before the joint meeting to tell him how the situation was then and if they still wanted to be present in the joint meeting with him. Overall, they spent five sessions with us. The first two meetings were only with the parents, the next three as a whole family.
During the sessions, deep family matters were discussed, but the conversation was directed by the family members – the parents and the children. The mediators helped them strengthen every member’s voice so that they could talk about certain issues never discussed before in a constructive way. The children could explain why they were withdrawing from the shared space in their house, how aware they were of their parents’ conflict, and how cautious they were about making trouble. At the same time, the children could explain how hard it was for them and how much they needed their parents to be their parents. The parents described how they were struggling individually and how lost and helpless they felt. At the same time, they were able to assure the children of wanting to be their best parents and that they would work hard on it. Through the summaries, the family members were able to be more clear and oriented towards what had been going on, how particular situations were connected, and their options for a different approach. Through repeated check-ins on how and whether they wanted to respond or continue or decide, the control rested with the family for the entire mediation. It helped the family to restore its ability to regulate its functions, be responsive, and caring about every family member and the family as a whole. They decided to try to change the situation using particular goals they wanted to achieve from session to session. They were not successful every time or on the whole scale. But through the mediated conversation, they kept working hard. And they succeeded in the end. The security, connection, and belonging of the family were restored. The parents found their way to rebuild their relationship. The children started to believe once again they could ask their parents for help and support, even emotional support. After the worst year in their life, the children said that they spent the best Christmas ever together with their parents. That is what we believe is the power of conversation.
When, at the end, we asked them to give us feedback on this experience, they said it was rough but were happy to have gone through this as a family. The parents agreed that without their children’s voice, they would have only guessed and supposed what was going on in their family. And they understood the situation much better than they had before the mediation. Only a family dialog or family mediation helped them make sense about what was going on, understand better what the other family members’ real needs were, say what they wanted to say, and be sure that the other party was listening.
In January 2021, at our final meeting, the family left our center with smiles on their faces, even though almost a year ago, they were lost and thinking about bad scenarios like the family breaking up. One of the most important outcomes of their meeting was the promise of more frequent and open communication at home. They also agreed to come back and have a conversation in mediation if their conversations were not working.
In this difficult time, a family mediation offers the chance to deal with conflicts and the opportunity to redefine the way makes decisions and has conversations. A mediation based on relational self-determination can help parties have a more constructive and less destructive conversation about challenging topics by encouraging them to shift from relative weakness to relative strength and from relative self-absorption to responsiveness. Secondly, by helping them make their own decisions and supporting self-determination and mutual recognition of each family member, including children.