On the last day of October at Riverside in California a SWAT team shot and killed an angry father who had invaded an elementary school and taken a teacher hostage. This was not a good example of mediation. It may, however, be a fair example of the passions aroused in parents, which are such frequent sources of worry and fatigue in teachers, and also sometimes lead to incidents on paediatric wards and A&E departments.

Parental anger has several roots. It is reasonable to call one of them directly biological – this is the “tiger and cubs” root, and perhaps it connects (as with tigers) more with the mother. Then there is the strand of the threat to home territory and parental status that may be posed by teacher or health or social worker and that, perhaps – at least sometimes, is more provoking to the father.

Tension between parents and professionals is destructive. I am not saying that it is never understandable and I am not saying that parents should be meek pushovers and obey professionals.  All I am saying is that the tension in and of itself  is destructive.

Medical experience has shown me this clearly, again and again. A sick child is a problem presented by Nature to a doctor (or other health worker fulfilling a physician’s function). It is often a difficult problem to solve; the process of diagnosis is to make a conjecture and then test it, being ready to drop the conjecture and make another continually in the light of new developments. Parental anger or hostility induce defensiveness in the doctor, and defensiveness induces rigidity. In other words, the doctor will now “marry” his/her conjectured diagnosis and stick to it without re-evaluation no matter how the child’s condition changes or what further reflection might show.  In the opposite direction, something a doctor says may freeze a parent’s emotion into rigidity and restrict their ability to respond more widely to the needs of their own child.

When you read in a newspaper of a child whose appendix burst despite medical assessment twelve hours earlier, or who was sent home with meningitis although staff said it was just a cold, it is more likely than not that there was tension, aggression and subsequent rigidity in the picture. (You cannot be certain this was the case since nature and sickness can be so capricious and unpredictable, but it is more than likely.)  Therefore the defusing of tension has the potential to prevent disability or death – it is that important.

A mediator may be able to defuse the tension by showing each party what the other is thinking and feeling. Hearing this articulated by a third, neutral person will comfort the aggrieved, as well as facilitating communication. In a rapidly evolving and urgent situation, however, a professional #mediator is unlikely to be available; but another, senior staff member who is clearly impartial, who has no dog in the fight, may well be of the greatest assistance. This makes the case for the training of health staff in mediation skills by professional mediators who are qualified in this art themselves.

What I have said about medicine and families, my own primary experience, seems to me to apply frequently to school situations too.