Triangulation – The Art of Strangulating Family Relationships

I never forgot the day that a therapist made me vulnerable in front of my children.

“Your father’s not always right – just like you. When he makes mistakes, he needs to admit it.”

His statement was absolutely true – I’m not always right. But those targeted words didn’t come in a private conversation. Instead, they came during a family therapy session when the topic was my children’s accountability. Not mine.

In less than 10 seconds, a dangerous seed sprang to life. 

In front of my children, another adult had questioned my credibility. They now felt empowered to do the same. And for the next decade, they did – whenever feeling the need to disagree with me.

Question. Debate. Argue. Rage.

More times than I care to remember, several of my kids even mimicked the therapist’s words – while invoking his name.

“You’re not always right. Admit it.”


Such misplaced control – all because of one brief statement from someone who should have known better. Yet far too common.

This no-win scenario is called triangulation.

Triangulation results when well-meaning adults allow our children to question the intentions of us parents – perhaps even criticize – without confirming the facts.

Some adults go one step further. They start asking our children open-ended questions about us. A fishing expedition with too much bait! 

That’s when facts easily become distorted. As adults make one naive comment after another, our kids hang on every word and then assume the worst about us – fighting words that they will long remember.

A fishing expedition with too much bait.

These adults over-reach. They disregard boundaries. In the process they do the family a tremendous disservice.

Our children are misled – believing they can always be right.

The actions of mom or dad are wrong.

Hands over earsFor kids with previous trauma or other mental health conditions that affect their cause-and-effect thinking, the risk is even greater.

Triangulation adds to their mis-perceptions. It intensifies their insecurities. Our sons and daughters begin to doubt the sincerity of the individuals most committed to their care.

Confusion leading to chaos – and not feeling safe.

These well-meaning adults who create triangulation may be aunts or uncles, grandparents, therapists, teachers, neighbors, law enforcement officers or other parents. Unfortunately, the fall-out can be immediate. It can last weeks, months or years. As we parents are de-valued, respect goes out the window – along with any sense of our authority.

Children soon feel entitled to say and do whatever they please.

Even when I watched for triangulation, it happened again. And again. Adults peddled their advice without a second thought, believing they – not I – know best. In their minds they are saving – not enabling – a child with a difficult past.

HaloWhen these outsiders foster triangulation, they allow our children to blame us rather than accepting personal responsibility. Some kids might subsequently seek similar advice. To manipulate. To justify their inappropriate behavior. 

Several adults set up my children for failure by not standing firm and not telling them the truth. And encouraging them to hear it.

Talk must be straight forward. A few well-chosen words, with no room for misinterpretation.

In other words, rules need to be followed. Parents need to be respected. The vast majority take their role seriously.

Family therapy, a norm in many households, became a trail of professionals unwilling to hold my children accountable. Targeting me was easier. When one therapist finally wised up, my second oldest son simply found a new source at school. And the cycle started again.

Once triangulation develops deep roots, children might feel empowered to tell lies about their parents. Ugly distortions. In the most troublesome cases, they go one step further and create false allegations of abuse or neglect in the home to education and/or child welfare officials.

All in the name of control. Very convincingly.

After my oldest son gained an undeserved sense of power, his stories came close to destroying my integrity – and dismantling our family.

Reasonably intelligent people believed him, while doubting me – even though his past lies were unsubstantiated time and time again. 

My advice to parents is simple. 

triangulation#4Limit one-on-one contact with new adults in your children’s lives. Ask them to verify the facts like one teacher did without reservation.

“That sounds really interesting. Let’s call your father to confirm.”  

And to the adults in our kids’s lives, be kind. Listen. Be empathetic. But never give them anything they haven’t earned. And never promise more than you can deliver, after first consulting with mom and dad.  DCP

For a follow-up blog with more details about the fall-out from triangulation, click here for another blog.


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26 thoughts on “Triangulation – The Art of Strangulating Family Relationships

  1. I adopted a 12 yr old.he’s 13 now.known him his whole life bad family..many bad adults n now they see him n confuse him even more. We need helpl.

    1. To not feel alone in the struggle to help our children from trauma is incredibly life changing not just for the adults but for the children, the whole family. I could have written this myself!! I have felt alone for so long, not even the therapists get it and we have been through many! Now my family is in a very seriuose situation because of triangulation that a therapist told us, it isn’t true. You gave me new strength and hope, I humbly thank you!

  2. Thank you for such a well-written and relevant post! This problem exists in many adoptive families, but also in bio families. The parents have a paramount role in a child’s life and that role should be supported to help the child feel secure and grow into a well-adjusted adult. Great post!

    1. Thank you for this! I will share on fasebook hoping my husband will read this and see what our son is doing to our relationship.

  3. This letter…Is just SO spot on. We adopted a 9 year old girl (now ten) who was only raised in an orphanage last summer and are in the process of adopting a 9 year old boy who was neglected and abandoned at age 5 before being placed in an orphanage. We were given training on attachment disorders by our adoption agency but attaching with her was surprisingly easy. She truly wanted to be adopted. Despite her intellectual bonding with us and her desire to be adopted, her “traumatized” brain does not react well to changes in schedule, feelings of shame, especially combined with low blood sugar and fatigue. It’s been exhausting and frustrating as we’ve had to find clues to what triggers violent temper tantrums which usually include triangulation trying to pit my husband and I against one another, the phrases “I hate you” or “I hate it here” or “You aren’t my family” or “I’m going back”, etc, etc. It hurts. Even when you know it’s not her conscious self. While we are using a child play therapist, we also found an amazing adoption therapist who does not see our child. She sees us and gives us tools to be her therapists at home. We are learning to look at her as what a sharp, strong, little girl she had to be to have used these “survival skills” to make it through her early life, and see her as a sometimes super sweet girl who turns into a nightmare child over things like putting away her coloring before dinner. We are learning to see it’s not about the coloring or the soda she wanted. It’s about her not feeling safe because there was a snow day and she expected to go to school or it’s about shame for trouble with kids at school. We are learning that it’s all about keeping her feeling safe, yet letting her opinions to be heard (indulging her need to feel in control). We know the struggle will go on for years, but it’s going to be worth it when she comes out a strong, independent young woman. It’s even worth it now when she surprises you with a random act of sweetness that you know is inside of her, she just has to fight her own brain to show this vulnerability and our job is to create the space to let her feel safe enough to show it. That’s what we as adoptive parents should have signed in the first paperwork.

  4. Children born out of wedlock are also subject to triangulation. I adopted my wife’s daughter soon after our marriage. The biological father wanted nothing to do with his daughter or his daughter’s mother.

    I thought it would be good for our daughter to know me as her father, as her mother and I got married when she was seven. That worked for a while, There were times when she would tell people that I was her father, but she could not bring herself to call me Dad or Pop. Her grandfather had filled this role for seven years and he was still alive until her late teens.

    Sometime in her teenage years, there seems to have been some triangulation occurring. It could have come from several sources. Bit I could not tell whether it was from her peers, her teachers or the in-laws.

    At age 18, her mother and I separated. Our divorce occurred at when our daughter was 20. Now for the past 20 years she has wanted nothing to do with me. Spiritual and psychological counseling have both helped me to accept that this is her decision as an adult. However, that separation now leaves a vacuum in my life.

    As friends and relatives speak of their grandchildren, I know that my daughter is married, bur I have now idea if she has had any children. I know her husband, as his mother worked in our office for a few years. I had.also met him when he was a teen ager. They had gone to different high schools and met in their mid-twenties.

    But I do not want to enter my daughter’s relationship by this side door. Counseling has warned me that this action would not be helpful. So I wait to see if the hardness of her heart will change. Realizing that some triangulation has occurred helps. I cannot change the effect that other people have had on the child who is now an adult. I pray for the happiness of my daughter and her husband in their marriage.

  5. Dear Bean, Would you be comfortable disclosing the name of the adoption agency you used? I’m an adoptive mom to a a girl I adopted from overseas when she was 5 or 6 (true age unknown) and is now a young adult who is estranged from me, lives with her former teacher, and triangulates people against me. I am researching adoption agencies trying to find out what kind of education they give parents. From what I’ve found out so far, I really don’t think they are and it’s 2018! There is so much good info out there but I don’t think staff at adoption agencies are reading Deborah Gray, Heather Forbes, Dan Hughes, Daniel Siegel, etc (and blogs like this one) or going to all these wonderful conferences on attachment and trauma that are taking place every year. I adopted from a very reputable agency that had been brokering adoptions for many years, and I received no real education on what the realities of taking in an older adoptee from a far away country would be. I am single, and that adds another layer because people raising traumatized kids need emotional support for themselves sometimes. We need to be believed by someone else in the house who knows what is really going on.

    When I called my adoption agency three years ago to let them know that my child had run away and that I believed my child learned how to triangulate (proxy recruitment is really the accurate term) after I had taken her to a therapist at an agency that I thought I could trust because they too facilitate adoptions (Lutheran Children and Family Services). That therapist was an adoptee herself and she became triangulated by my daughter!
    The social worker (and one of the directors) who I spoke with–I don’t think she even understood what triangulation and early trauma are! She just got defensive and said “remember you signed a paper?” “We told you that we didn’t know what happened to the child before she came to the orphanage. I signed a paper? Like I was buying a used car? (She also said “the teen years are so hard” as if this was about my daughter approaching young adulthood and not about attachment and fear). I could not believe how dismissive she was. But the reality is that they do know what happened to my daughter. She lost her birth mother and whole family, She was poor (very skinny) and found wandering around in a train station before police found her. That’s enough to know she has suffered trauma (and maybe other things like abuse). All kids who have lost their birth mother (even if they are immediately given to the new mother after the birth in the hospital) have suffered early trauma. Yes, I did sign a paper, but I had no idea what the reality of bringing an older child with so much loss into my life would mean. I remember I was given the impression that “these kids” could become very troubled and depressed and that when that happens you just take your child to a therapist who deals with identity and loss. They didn’t tell the truth. They let a child (my daughter) be taken by me (a single woman with no real understanding of attachment and trauma) and that is unethical and negligent. Why most people in the adoption industry think that setting up an orphan from a “developing” country in a house in the US with a parent or parents who live in a safe neighborhood, make at least a middle class level of income, have a retirement account and some savings, is enough to give a child a healthy and happy life is beyond me. It’s like they are setting up parents for failure. And they take no responsibility for this.

    If you or anyone else wants to contact me my email is
    Thanks for reading this long post.

  6. Triangulation sounds like what my sons SERT teacher did when my son initiated a CAS investigation over his confabulation.
    She said, and I quote: “now your mom will get the help she needs”. Ever since that time, (allegations unverified) my son has repeatedly challenged my words.
    I will never forgive that teacher and there isn’t anything I can do to fix it.

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