Nudging "stuck" parents in mediation with the Developmental Advisory Service

Nudging "stuck" parents in mediation with the Developmental Advisory Service

5 February 2015

Jamie Lee describes how a highly targeted psycho-educational "nudge" at the start of mediation can help parents work out what's best for their kids.

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Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners (FDRPs) have a few ways to help "stuckness" in mediation – when parents hold radically opposing views on what’s best for their children after separation1.

Group psycho-education about separation, conflict and children is certainly effective,2 but groups at Family Relationships Centres (FRCs) can occur weeks before mediation, and the format can seem too general. Child Inclusive Practice (CIP) is very effective, but is for school-aged children only and requires additional appointments for children, parents and practitioners – meaning it’s sadly under used3.

At the Adelaide FRC, the Developmental Advisory Service4, or DAS, delivers a brief and highly targeted psycho-educational ‘nudge’ to parents at the start of mediation. DAS requires no extra appointments or any additional information from parents beyond what’s already available5 and doesn’t require children to attend.

It also delivers results: 17 out of 21 DAS sessions (81%) have resulted in partial or full agreement in the mediation that follows immediately after the session. This compares well to the agency-wide statistic for non-stuck cases, where 69% have resulted in partial or full agreement.

So how does it work?

  • Case identification. An FDRP notices when parents are becoming "stuck" in mediation, or perhaps the FDRP thinks parents are too deeply entrenched in opposing views before the situation reaches mediation.
  • Establishing consent. The FDRP outlines what DAS involves and invites parents to participate. If both agree, the next mediation is booked to begin with a 30 mins DAS session.
  • Briefing to worker. The FDRP briefs the DAS worker on the case, any safety risks, and why he/she thinks the case may be "stuck".
  • Response formulation. The DAS worker then formulates a response based on a review of client materials5, relevant research literature and clinical experience.
  • Final check before mediation. When the parents arrive for the mediation appointment, the FDRP individually reviews each parent for any emerging risks or contra-indications to receive DAS.
  • Delivery of DAS. Assuming mediation proceeds, the DAS worker joins for the first 30 minutes to deliver the DAS and answer brief questions from parents.

The key ingredients behind DAS are quickly building rapport with the parents, and identifying insight into his/her pain (see the Insights, below), then re-humanising the parents in the other parent’s eyes by revealing “dreams within conflict”.

The children’s worker may also offer ideas for other resources that can help or suggest referral options if needed (based on review of child mental health screeners). Bringing along age appropriate books and materials can help “bring the child in the room” even though the DAS worker only meets the child via the parents.

The mediator is then left to facilitate “change talk” – where clients say out loud why they need to change – and help the parents draft a parenting agreement.

DAS usually involves an extra 1.5 hours work from staff; however early results show that delivering a brief and targeted psycho-education intervention can mean a lot to the families who access it.

Insights that have helped "nudge" stuck mediations

  • Relationship separation, especially recent separation for the non-initiating party, is painful, and parents may be struggling with thoughts like, “This is not how my life was meant to be”, and, “Why should I? He/she doesn’t deserve it.”
  • Reminding parents that while they can remember life before the other parent was in it, and can re-imagine it in the future, their kids have no precedent for life without their family all in one home.
  • Some parents are desperate to be relevant and important in their kids’ lives, especially if one parent sees them significantly less than the other parent, or if their teenagers are struggling with a week-about schedule. More overnight stays or resisting change may not be the best way for parents to achieve this sense of importance in their children’s lives.
  • Parents can be scared to let the other parent know if they think their children are suffering at home for fear it reflects badly, and they risk losing time with their children. An impartial children’s worker can see kids’ mental health screening scores and steer the discussion about any concerns, especially if both parents score the child as being at a high risk of developing problems.

1. The term "parent" is used for brevity, though it is recognised that many people may have an interest in the welfare and development of children; equally it is assumed that people in mediation had an intimate partner relationship, though this is not always the case.

2. For examples of evidence of effect in Australian contexts, see FRSA 2012 conference presentations by Murray and Wilson-Evered and Brandenburg, Beacham and Munro.

3. Allen Consulting Group (2013) state that usage is about 5-10% of cases.

4. Christened by Jenn McIntosh.

5. Information used in DAS is a review of DOORS (see, child universal mental health screening forms (see CFCA) and FDRP file notes in Penelope (a Client Information System).

The feature image is by Dani Vázquez, CC BY-SA 2.0.


I have been involved in FDR with Relationships Australia for 8 years. I think the concept of DAS is a very good initiative. In Queensland there is another initiative which I am trained in called FDR41 which is basically a conflict coaching session for a client who is stuck. I have also studied conflict coaching through the Resolution Institute, and I am a firm believer that at times we as practitioners need to take the additional step, or push the envelope to get the clients to become aware there are better alternatives than going to the family law court. I also find that a therapeutic approach is of great value in a mediation when the parents lose sight of what is happening for their children.
Robert Tilbrooke

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Jamie Lee

Jamie Lee is Principal Researcher at Relationships Australia (SA). He is also a Counselling Psychologist working with children and their families after separation.

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