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.
For 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.
When 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.
Limit 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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