NEWSLETTER ARTICLE: Mediation clients are often victims of trauma

April 2016
Published through the Family Mediators Association UK

I have recently returned to the UK from Australia, where I have been practicing for many years in a senior clinical role as a mediator, family therapist and member of an interdisciplinary collaborative law team whilst working for Relationships Australia New South Wales.  This is a large and, by comparison with the UK, well funded organisation that is primarily focused on counselling and post separation services that support parents to come to collaborative agreements in relation to financial matters and arrangements for children.

Working for such a large family relationship focused organisation gave me the opportunity to take advantage of a very effective group of in-house researchers, and this allowed me to study and gather evidence from the parents that used the services of Relationships Australia to resolve parenting issues.  My particular interest was to look at the post separation parents who were effectively mandated to attend mediation in an attempt to avoid using the family court.  Many of these parents had little or no desire to resolve their issues with each other in mediation, in fact, many were looking forwards to their ‘day in court’ in the certain expectation of vindication from the judge who would tell the other parent just how awful they had been.  This sense of certainty that the courts would find in their favour seemed to indicate a particular kind of social blindness to the fact that they may have been partially responsible for the breakdown of their relationship, and that the judge would in all probability not see one parent as completely right and the other as completely wrong.

The mediators that I would supervise would tell me that they thought their clients were ‘mentally ill’ and certainly, many of the sentiments that the parents voiced were similar to those expressed by people with mental health issues.  But, my reading and the research that we conducted led me to a different conclusion:  these parents were not mentally ill, rather, they were suffering from the consequences of childhood trauma; a lack of self-awareness; an inability to imagine the experience of another; and, a lack of capacity to have insights into how their own behaviour may impact on others.  These are all indicators of someone who, as a child, has experienced complex trauma.  Little by little, as children, their capacity to thrive as a social being had suffered a death of a thousand cuts as they were teased, shamed, scared, or worried about their parent’s capacity to look after them.  

Attachment theory describes this phenomenon as a lack of ability to understand and pick up on emotional and cognitive cues sent by others.  Neurobiological theories suggest that a traumatic childhood will result in an over active limbic system, (which acts a little bit like the body’s smoke detector), that sees danger everywhere and will quickly shut down the pre-frontal cortex which is the part of the brain which is expert at making sense of complex social situations.  Evolutionary theory tells us that self awareness has never been considered a priority for survival, and finally, trauma theory says that children growing up in unpredictable and unstable environments have damage inflicted upon their hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.  Put simply, a child’s system has been routinely flooded with cortisol, the neurotransmitter chemical that is produced when you are in danger and need to go into flight, fight or freeze mode to ensure your survival.

The problem for children who have been exposed to trauma is that they have been in a constant state of high arousal over an extended period and this has damaged their health and their capacity to function as social beings.  These children are now adults who are coming for mediation and the rigid and blaming narratives they present are symptoms of something that happened long before they met the parent with whom they are now in conflict.

So, what are we to do when these parents come to mediation as a result of never really understanding themselves or each other each other, convinced that they have had children with someone who turned out to be mad or bad?  Through my work, I have learnt that it is imperative that people affected by trauma are treated in a way that makes them feel safe, and with the compassion and patience that we would use with any other trauma victim. As individuals who have experienced a great deal of profound social suffering in their interactions with others, they will experience a sense of discomfort and subsequently lose any ability to think expansively or with generosity if they get any inkling that the practitioner working with them does not approve or think well of them.  They are experts at picking up on inauthenticity and will be unable to benefit from any cognitively driven processes, such as looking at options, if they are not constantly experiencing a deep sense of connection, engagement and safety. 

It is always a privilege to work with trauma victims who, through mediation, can quite radically change their perspectives and shift to a more compassionate parenting alliance with the other parent, benefiting themselves and their children enormously as they no longer need the comfort of blame and defense mechanisms that they had to learn as children in order to survive.   In my opinion, this transformation is only possible for trauma victims where therapeutic techniques are endemic to the process.  By that, I do not intend to suggest that mediators should not work with trauma victims unless they have a background in therapy, but I do believe that engagement with such clients is not likely to result in a positive, collaborative agreement unless mediators learn to connect with them in a way that is open, empathic, and compassionate.  For that to happen, we need to change our own beliefs about the parents that we work with.  Each client has a story to tell and a deep longing to be heard and understood.  We need to hear what it is that they need to say; it is time for us to no longer hold them at arm’s length due to concerns of impartiality and neutrality and to let them know that we hear them and that we are moved by their very human stories.