Sometimes in situations where there is discord between the two parents in a marriage or partnership and, as a result, a breakdown in communication. Such breakdowns in communication may occur, for example, because the parents aren’t speaking to each other due to animosity or because they are living geographically apart the child may be used as a ‘go-between’ in a process that psychologists and therapists sometimes refer to as TRIANGULATION.
In other words, instead of communicating directly, triangulation occurs when the parents communicate, via the child, indirectly. Such communications frequently involve one parent criticizing, expressing dissatisfaction with, or devaluing the other. Sometimes, too, sadly, the process of triangulation may be used manipulatively whereby one parent tries to recruit the child as an ally in order to distort his/her view of the other parent in a negative way leading to parental alienation.
Children’s Experience Of Triangulation In Their Families:
A study conducted by Dallos et al., (2016) involved 15 children (eleven to sixteen years old) who were attending family therapy.
The study made use of two sets of pictures:
- PICTURES FROM THE SEPARATION ANXIETY TEST (SAT)
- PICTURES SPECIALLY DESIGNED FOR THE STUDY OF VARIOUS DEPICTIONS OF FAMILY TRIANGULATION CONFLICT SCENARIOS.
Also, interviews were conducted to gain information about the children’s experiences of triangulation within the family as well as information relating to their family contexts.
THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY WERE AS FOLLOWS:
The children responded with GREATER LEVELS OF ANXIETY TO TRIANGULATION SCENARIOS compared to the separation scenarios.
This finding was supported by evidence obtained from interviews in which children expressed various anxieties in relation to being caught up in the triangulation process, including:
- feeling coerced to take sides
- feeling ignored and ‘invisible’ due to their parents’ preoccupation with their marital difficulties
- feeling ‘caught in the middle’
Despite the findings of the study, interviews also revealed that despite the fact that being caught up in the triangulation process appeared to provoke particular anxiety in the children, they did not appear to be consciously aware of the adverse effect this was having on their well-being.
This should serve as a reminder that while children may appear to be resilient in the face of family trauma, even in their own eyes, severe psychological damage may still be occurring, as it were, ‘off the radar’ sometimes only manifesting itself much later in life and leading to diagnoses such as complex PTSD and borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Also, as noted by the authors of the study, the results show the importance of child-centered approaches to family therapy.
1. Dallos R, Lakus K, Cahart M-S, McKenzie R. Becoming invisible: The effect of triangulation on children’s well-being. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2016;21(3):461-476. doi:10.1177/1359104515615640