I enjoy mediating with teens and parents. The cases are sometimes referred by social services or probation, or sometimes a school counselor or social worker will recommend trying mediation. Initially I made the assumption that any young person coming in who has been referred by an official agency, some under the threat that this was the last chance before being taken out of the home, would come in intending to comply with the terms. This is not always the case.
After greeting the parents and teen, I explain the mediation process and the ground rules and tell them that there is a commitment to attend a one hour session for 4 consecutive weeks. The parents generally agree but the teen will usually, and sullenly, only agree to see how it goes. There are no guarantees except for the first session. Yet at the end of all those first sessions, they all agree to come back; that’s a 100% retention rate. This isn’t to say that every mediation resolved all the conflicts or necessarily ended ‘successfully’, but just having everyone return every week was something of a victory. What made them agree? What changed their attitude? Here’s what I got from some of the feedback and my observations.
The kids I see are in trouble, whether at school or at home. They are being told they are bad and people are responding to them accordingly. They are acting out, no question, but are they really bad? When my kids were little, I would make the distinction between doing something bad and being bad. I didn’t see any of my kids as being a ‘bad seed’ but they clearly did some things that would be considered ‘bad’ and sometimes their attitude certainly fell into that category. But I tried to avoid that label, ‘bad kid’. The teens I see already have that label. Mediation is about communication. It’s not about categorizing anyone.
These teens are taking the total blame for the bad dynamics in their homes. There is a pattern that parents, in their frustration, resort to and that’s the old, ‘he/she is impossible!’ Things have spiraled out of control and rather than seeing that the pattern is a mutual one, the child is considered to be the problem. It’s not that these are bad parents, they have just lost control of the situation. Neither one can talk to the other without it degenerating into an argument. Mediation recognizes that both sides need to be able to talk for there to be communication. There’s no blame. Both sides have to recognize that each has a role in improving the communication. When an agreement is made at the end of each session, both sides create goals to work towards in the coming week.
One of the first things I try to determine from the parties is when the problem started. Often the parents will describe how their child was such an easy, cooperative person who helped out with chores and enjoyed time with the family. When I ask when this was, they will reflect and say, ‘when he was 11’ and now we’re looking at a 14 year old. Time goes by and the parent forgot that their young child has turned into a teenager. The teen, having the usual emotional turmoil that comes with the transition from being a child to a young adult, now hears the parent acknowledging and coming to the realization that he/she is a teenager and no longer a child. Sometimes it’s those realizations that break a barrier and get a teen back to the table.