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What is Triangulation and how can it Damage Your Co-Parenting Relationship?


When parents are divorced or no longer together, functioning as a family unit, it is common for the children to spend meaningful time in each parent’s household. During this transition, the parents have to go from (often) having a romantic relationship to learning to work together as co-parents in the business of raising happy, healthy children. Even when parents have a long-standing positive co-parenting relationship, they must still be on the lookout for triangulating behaviors. Many parents that have functioned well in a co-parenting relationship for many years will suddenly and unexpectedly be faced with children creating triangulating behaviors.

What is Triangulation?

This is a situation where there are three parties (the two parents and the child or children) and the parents are not communicating effectively with one other. This ends up resulting in the child or children being the medium to communicate back and forth with one another. This can occur through the parents with their awareness such as when they ask their child to “take a message” to the other parent or it can happen more subtlety where a child begins speaking for the other parent without the consent or even awareness of the other parent. This can happen in other circumstances where a parent starts sharing or expressing anger or frustration about the other parent in the presence of the children or allowing the children to overhear things and in some situations, it happens where the parent asks the child about what happens at the other parent’s home or about the other parent’s life.

These actions and behaviors cause significant stress for the children involved. The children feel stuck in the middle and begin to have increased signs of stress and anxiety as they try to find and broker peace between their parents or feel required to take sides between the parents.

How Can Co-Parents Work Together to Avoid Triangulation?

Often parents don’t intentionally try to create a triangulated situation, but it occurs organically due to the stress and tension between them or one or both of the parents having unresolved feelings of anger or hostility that they mistakenly allow the child or children to be come aware of. In the long run, the triangulating behaviors will be harmful to the whole family. Co-parents can work together to establish healthy rules for communication. They can do this directly or through the services of a mediator or co-parenting therapist. In some families it is helpful if the parents’ communication is limited to electronic messaging through emails, text messages or a co-parenting app such as Our Family Wizard, Talking Parents or App Close. Parents should come to agreements about boundaries for discussions and communications in the presence and hearing of the children. The parents need to agree to put their children first. To commit with one another to make sure that children are not placed in a triangulated relationship.  

What if Triangulation Gets to the Point of The Child Creating Alienation?

This can often happen when a child sees their parents not able to fully close the communication gap and they use it to their advantage. For example, if an older child goes to each parent and asks for reimbursement for school supplies that they have purchased, the child gets reimbursed twice and both parents may have a complaint about the other parent that he or she is refusing to share in the cost of the school supplies. Ultimately, when these kinds of manipulative communications start happening and the child is found out, the best solution for the parents going forward is to work together with one another to communicate effectively.

In the worst situations, triangulating alienating children can be difficult to have in your own home as they will tell lies and begin to feel as though they are an enemy in your own home. However, fortunately, when it gets to this level, the child’s lies are ultimately, often easy to disprove. Generally when the child engages in this behavior, they are learning it from either positive reinforcement from a parent responding to behavior or lies that the child tells about the other parent’s house or the concerns are being modeled by a parent about the other parent.

Why Do Children Engage in This Kind of Behavior?

It is modeled and learned from a parent who is trying to “win” the child over to his or her side. When a parent is working on alienating a child, he or she allows the child to think they are special or bonded or deserving of special attention or privileges in picking the side of the parent who is trying to influence the child to be on his or her side. The child may also believe with good intentions that he or she can help solve problems including for one parent being excessively sad, the parents not getting along, among other behaviors.

How Can This Be Fixed: Circling the Triangle!

Circling the triangle is a strategy often used by therapists, guardian ad litems in family court, among other situations where everyone in the family dynamic is brought into the “circle” so that complete communication can be achieved. When children are old enough, there are occasions where scheduling and other communications should include the child. Often, this circling process also allows the professionals involved to see the dynamics directly and what is occurring in the family situation.

If your family is struggling with triangulating behaviors, it is important that you involve professionals to step in and resolve these issues. Generally failing to address them results in the dynamic getting worse and worse- not better. If you believe that you need to discuss how interventions and breaking the triangulation cycle may help your family, call Pingel Family Law today to schedule a consultation and see how we can assist (816) 208-8130.

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