What is triangulation?
Triangulation may be new terminology for you, but I’m sure that you’ll very quickly recognise it and how it is affecting your family.
Triangulation is a common yet serious symptom of attachment difficulties. It can cause significant problems in relationships, in families and between friends. It can cause further problems between parents and schools.
In parental triangulation, the child, the parent and one other person make up the triangle. The child works very hard to make this other person think the parent does not know what she is doing, that she is unfair and harsh. They know how to stir the pot until eventually the fighting is between parent and someone else and the child is standing off to the side with a big smile on their face.
I’m pretty sure this is a regular occurrence in your house. It surely happens at PASH Towers!”
Refuse to let this happen.
You and your family need to talk about it – to regularly say in front of your child:
We are team. You cannot come in between us. We know what we are doing and we will always back each other up.
This really takes care of a lot of triangulation as the lines are very clear. The child will still occasionally come to one of you to “tell” on the other. The best response in this situation is to say:
Are you telling on your dad/brother/ sister etc? Let’s go and talk to them about it.
This of course is usually met with a resounding NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!
With teachers you also need a unified front. As difficult as it sometimes is, you need to let school do their thing and trust that your child is perfectly safe there. Let your child see you sit with the key people at school and tell the child together that you are a team and will back each other up. Leave school issues at the gate and focus on nurture at home.
When Bob went to his new school in September, his wise headteacher sat me down on the first day and said:
This will only work if we are a team, if we only ever sing from the same hymn-sheet in front of Bob. We can have different opinions away from him, but need to be united when we are together.
At the time, I felt a bit like a naughty child myself but on day two at the new school, Bob upped his game and tried to push all known boundaries. I sat in the Head’s office and we gave Bob EXACTLY the same message. I could see him looking confused and working out that school and I were going to put up a united front, think the same things and have the same expectations.
After that day, we could see Bob relax at school, safe in the knowledge that he was safe, and also that I knew he was. The rest is history. We have not been called into school since, and, as the school year ends, I believe that the effort we made at the beginning to prevent triangulation has played a huge part in that.
For those of you who want the science and academic writing, Wikipedia defines triangulation in child development…
A definition of triangulation – the science bit
In the field of psychology, triangulations are necessary steps in the child’s development when a two-party relationship is opened up by a third party into a new form of relationship. So the child gains new mental abilities. The concept was introduced in 1971, by the Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Ernest L. Abelin, especially as ‘early triangulation’, to describe the transitions in psychoanalytic object relations theory and parent-child relationship in the age of 18 months. In this presentation, the mother is the early caregiver with a nearly “symbiotic” relationship to the child, and the father lures the child away to the outside world, resulting in the father being the third party. Abelin later developed an ‘organizer- and triangulation-model’, in which he based the whole human mental and psychic development on several steps of triangulation.
It’s a natural developmental stage, until it isn’t
Triangulation, then, is a natural part of child development at around 18 months to 2 years. However, in young people with attachment and trauma disorders, it can continue long past this age. They are often ‘stuck’ at this developmental stage as they seek to make sense of the adults and relationships around them.
They may seek to retain an exclusive relationship – often with the primary carer and find threat in any other who seeks to expand this relationship or disrupt it in any way.
Although in child development, triangulation is most commonly found between child and parental figures, in our young people, anyone can be the third party – siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, key workers. The child wants to stay safe and so uses control of communication to feel important.
They attempt to control, in whatever way they can, the flow, the interpretation, and even the most subtle nuances of communication between two separate people or groups of people. They often want to ensure the other figures communicate through them but remain otherwise isolated.
In some cases children will use control of communication to drive a wedge between the other parties. This can be done by falsely making one of the people or groups of people into a scapegoat for problems that the child is actually responsible for or that are otherwise unrelated. In addition the child may falsely credit the other person with saying or thinking something hurtful, or may put too much emphasis on an aspect of something that was said to them that ignores the wider context – home and school can be a good example of this.
Some examples of triangulation
So what does triangulation look like in real life?
The child says one thing to parent and another to school. This causes a drama, argument or additional attention
The child may claimthat one parent is behaving unfairly, they may also shift allegiances between parents. Sometimes the parents triangulate the child by saying something negative to the child about the other parent.
Child – parent – child
The child may either monopolise the parent or the parent’s time. They may claim that the other child makes them angry, is unfair or is nasty to them. This is often to ensure that the triangulating child is seen as favourite, or is in control of the sibling/parent relationships.
In children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, triangulation is almost a daily (or hourly occurrence). A friend with a RAD child calls her the ‘Master Manipulator’ as her need to manipulate to stay safe is so great. A quick internet search of triangulation threw up stories aplenty of relationship and marriage break ups and criminal investigations resulting from this strategy. Similar phrases appeared again and again:
He doesn’t behave like that for me!
Divide and conquer
She told me you had given her permission
Triangulation can be oh so subtle and you may not be aware it is happening until you find you are becoming increasingly stressed.
How to know if triangulation is a problem
So how can you identify when Triangulation is becoming a problem?
- Attention will be drawn away from important issues in a relationship between two people.
- The third member of the relationship feels stressed, pressured, or manipulated as a result of being brought into the issue.
- One of the three people in the relationship will start to feel ignored, left out, or rejected.
- Triangulation pulls a third party into an inappropriate role (this might be where a child becomes an intermediary of conflict between two parents or perhaps where a friend outside a relationship with conflict becomes the confidant of one of the partners).
What can I do about it?
Once it has been recognised, triangulation should be addressed by the individuals in the primary relationship. If the third member recognises that triangulation is a problem, they should encourage the other two people involved to communicate with each other about their difficulties.
Where triangulation continues or stress levels become further increased, it may be time to find a suitably qualified counsellor or therapist to further explore the source if the issue.