Effective communication is an essential tool in achieving optimal results, in any forum. In the context of family mediation, it is recognized and widely accepted that mediators’ different styles of communication directly impact the parties’ ability to negotiate and move towards reaching mutually acceptable outcomes, the ultimate objective of mediation.
There is a plethora of research showing that the way in which parents communicate and manage their divorce proceedings has consequences on all family members, especially the well-being and emotional security of their children. Over the past decades, there has been an increasing concern about the psychological, social and physical impact of the adversarial process. As such, more parents are opting to resolve their family matters through mediation, in order to reduce the risks associated with launching in adversarial proceedings. Throughout this text, both “mediation” and “conflict resolution” will be used completely interchangeably; as well as “divorce mediation” and “family mediation”.
This paper explores the impact of communication styles, particularly as it surrounds families experiencing divorce or separation. It is proposed that not only interparental, but also mediator’s communicative competence plays a vital role in the family mediation process. The intention of this paper is to answer the questions: Why is effective communication important in family mediation and what are some strategic steps to ensure optimal quality of process? To effectively achieve this goal, I include a brief presentation on the literature surrounding the impact of descriptive communication, culture and cultural competency and the role of language on the engagement of the separating parties. Following this review, I focus on exploring communication styles of mediators with legal background and those with mental health training. Furthermore, the tenets of law and mental health training will be explored with a close look at the psychology of the brain in the learning process. The paper concludes with a number of recommendations to be considered when engaging in divorce mediation.
Regardless of marital status, parental communication is at the heart of family functioning. According to Family Communication Patterns (FCP) theory[i], the family environment acts as the foundation for children’s socialization, and has long-term behavioural effects. The manner in which parents interact shapes children’s reality and how they understand the world. Importantly, this pattern of interaction propels children’s own development of internal communication schemas that they will use in-and-outside of family context.[ii] The higher the ability of parents to share responsibilities and support each other, the better the outcomes for children’s well-being and psychosocial adjustment.[iii] This latter statement holds true for both intact and divorced families, therefore highlighting the importance of establishing, as well as maintaining, healthy coparental communication, irrespective of marital status.
Constructive communication, as characterized by engaging in collaborative and conflict-resolution techniques, is associated with “better adolescent outcomes, including increased prosocial behavior, autonomy-promoting behaviors, and relatedness to peers.”[iv] When children are exposed to functional communication patterns, they are more likely to feel emotionally secure as well as acquire adaptive problem-solving skills. Conversely, hostile and antagonistic coparental interaction destabilizes children’s emotional security and has deleterious consequences for their overall adjustment.[v] Therefore, according to Davies and Cummings, preserving emotional security is critical for children’s positive development. [vi]
It comes as no surprise that parental communication patterns not only impact the mental, but also the physical health of children. For example, a recent study by Afifi et al. showed that children’s physiological responses to stressful factors were associated with, and mitigated by, interparental communication.[vii] When parents were communicatively supportive, children were better equipped to manage and recover from stressful interactions, regardless of marital status and child’s age.[viii] In this context, children’s emotional security was deemed to have been sheltered which, in turn, contributed to their increased ability to respond more positively to adversities.
In contrast, when parents were poor communicators, children were less likely to properly regulate stress responses and did not recover as well as the children whose parents were demonstrative of a more collaborative pattern of communication.[ix] The study, therefore, implies that when children’s emotional security is compromised, they are less able to properly regulate responses and they experience greater difficulties in managing stress. It is in this compromised state where stressors, such as divorce, can have “a much greater impact on children’s physiological responses, which is probably also magnified by the age of the child”.[x] Research has shown that emotional security is central to children’s functioning and future development.[xi] Regardless of marital status, parental nurturing of children’s emotional security promotes optimal development and protects them from internalizing and/or externalizing disorders.[xii] Children who are emotionally secure tend to be more equipped to self-regulate their behaviours and emotions, and are more adequately prepared to manage stress.[xiii] Conversely, emotional insecurity has been shown to predict maladaptive adjustment, such as aggressive behaviours and decreased ability to self-regulate emotional responses to stressors.[xiv] Adolescents and young adults seem to be at a higher risk when parental communication is dysfunctional and when parents choose to confide in them with adult information. One explanation put forth is that adolescents and young adults are already grappling with establishing a sense of identity. This is why they are at more vulnerable level, especially if having to manage additional stresses.[xv] This knowledge is useful as it emphasizes the need to distinguish between ages and stages of development when discussing negative communication patterns and its impact.
[i] Cheung, R. Y., Cummings, E. M., Zhang, Z., & Davies, P. T. (2016). Trivariate modeling of interparental conflict and adolescent emotional security: an examination of mother–father–child dynamics. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 45(11), 2336-2352.
[iii] Feinberg, M. E. (2003). The internal structure and ecological context of coparenting: A framework for research and intervention. Parenting: Science and Practice, 3(2), 95-131.
[iv] McCoy, K., Cummings, E. M., & Davies, P. T. (2009). Constructive and destructive marital conflict, emotional security and children’s prosocial behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(3), 270-279. [McCoy, Cummings & Davies].
[v] Ibid at 7.
[vi] Davies, P. T., & Cummings, E. M. (1994). Marital conflict and child adjustment: An emotional security hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 387. [Davies & Cummings].
[vii] Afifi, T. D., Granger, D. A., Joseph, A., Denes, A., & Aldeis, D. (2015). The influence of divorce and parents’ communication skills on adolescents’ and young adults’ stress reactivity and recovery. Communication Research, 42(7), 1009-1042. [Afifi et al., 2015]
[viii] Ibid at 27.
[ix] Afifi et al., 2015, supra note 7 at 27.
[xi]Davies & Cummings, supra note 6 at 398.
[xii] McCoy, Cummings & Davies, supra note 4 at 9.
[xiii] Davies & Cummings, supra note 6 at 390.
[xv] Afifi, T. D., & Schrodt, P. (2003). “Feeling caught” as a mediator of adolescents' and young adults' avoidance and satisfaction with their parents in divorced and non-divorced households. Communication Monographs, 70(2), 142-173.