“I have to be the mediator between my parents. My dad has me tell my mom what he needs from her. She tells me how he hurt her when they were married. I always feel like loving one parent means I am disloyal to the other. I love both my parents and I can’t share that feeling openly. It makes me feel like I’m alone on an island.” This is what I often hear when I counsel children in my job—children who have been triangulated.
Triangulation is what happens when a third party gets involved in a relationship between two people. This is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence for kids in divorced families. A parent involves the children in matters that aren’t their responsibility. When it happens, a child feels pulled in between two people he or she cares about. Even well-meaning parents can unwittingly triangulate a child. But there are four damaging effects that triangulation has on children. Have you seen them in your family?
It threatens their security.
Children’s sense of security is threatened when parents triangulate. It can feel like no adult is in charge thus leaving them to feel the pressure of managing their own lives. Neither adult feels reliable to lean on for leadership. But children were never meant to lead their own lives.
It gives them a heavier burden than they should have to bear.
When triangulated, children are put in the position of advising their parents. But adult-sized problems are much too weighty for a child to handle. Even if a child seems fine as he or she listens to one parent vent, the child is internally feeling the pressure to solve a problem he or she is unequipped to solve. Children who are triangulated also will learn that they have to keep their own emotions to themselves to avoid causing more pain for a parent.
It creates a sense of powerlessness.
When one parent views him or herself as a victim of the other, the children learn that they are powerless in life unless they are the villain. But when parents treat their situation as a hardship to overcome and show respect toward a former spouse, the child learns resilience. Life will always have some measure of unfairness. How we handle unfairness is key. Either we are run over by it or we conquer it and rise up strong.
It encourages passive aggression and manipulation.
If one parent uses children to get what he or she wants from the other parent, the children learn that passive aggression and manipulation are the means to use to deal with difficulty in relationships. Direct communication, even if it’s difficult, teaches children to have assertive communication skills.
How can we stop triangulation in families?
There should only be two people involved in a given conflict within a family. There shouldn’t be a middle man. Teach your children to go directly to the person they have an issue with. Set an example by doing that yourself. Avoid venting to one family member about another. Learn and practice healthy boundaries and assertive communication skills. Teach these skills to your children. The book Boundaries by Townsend and Cloud is a terrific resource for this. Only get involved in relationship conflicts if a child is in danger or otherwise in need of adult intervention.
What have you found helpful to avoid triangulation in your family?