Co-parenting conflict can harm all children, regardless of their age or personality. However, one type of co-parenting conflict tops them all, and that is called triangulation.
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In co-parenting triangulation refers to involving a child in disputes or communication between two parents and using the child as a pawn to try to get one parent to change their behaviour.
Triangulation is the worst co-parenting conflict because it pits one parent against another. This can be highly damaging to kids as it puts them in the middle of their parent’s disagreements and creates loyalty conflicts. Children love both parents, warts and all and loyalty conflicts damage their well-being
When parents are in conflict, children may feel caught in the middle. Children may feel pressure to take sides or to show support for one parent over the other, which can disrupt their relationships and create feelings of betrayal or uncertainty. Triangulation can also disturb the child’s sense of security and stability, as they may feel uncertain about how to navigate the conflicts and may worry about the impact on their relationships with their parents.
Depending on their age, they may also be aware and concerned that they, themselves, and the things they are saying and doing are now a part of that conflict between their parents. Talk about guilt!
BEHAVIOURS THAT CREATE TRIANGULATION
Here are examples of how a child might become triangulated between their parents:
A child may be asked to pass messages or information between their parents, such as reminding one parent about a scheduled phone call or repeating information that one parent has shared about the other parent.
Seeking support or alliance
A child may be asked to take sides or show support for one parent in a conflict, such as by comforting a parent who is upset or expressing their dislike for the other parent and their ideas and decisions.
Acting as a mediator
A child may be asked directly by a parent to attempt to mediate, or they may, on their own, attempt to do so to resolve conflicts between their parents by suggesting solutions or trying to smooth over differences.
A child may be asked to keep secrets or information from one parent, such as by not sharing details about the other parent’s activities, plans or recent trips to the doctor etc., that the other parent may not know about.
Being responsible for tasks beyond their age or ability
A child may be asked to perform duties or responsibilities, such as acting as a confidant or caregiver to a parent.
WAYS TRIANGULATION HARMS KIDS
Triangulation of a child between their parents can harm them in several ways. First, it can, and almost always does, lead to some or all of the following.
This includes confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, and fear. Children may feel distressed or overwhelmed by the pressure to take sides or keep secrets or support a parent emotionally, or by the responsibility of acting as a mediator or go-between.
Disruption of relationships
Triangulation can disrupt the child’s relationships with their parents. A child can feel torn between their parents and may feel pressure to choose one parent over the other.
Disruption of security and stability
Triangulation can disrupt a child’s sense of security and stability. They may feel uncertain about navigating the conflicts and may worry about the impact on their relationships with their parents.
Negative impacts on mental health
Triangulation can negatively impact a child’s mental health, such as increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Children caught in their parents’ conflicts tend to be more vulnerable to these issues.
SIGNS OF TRIANGULATION STRESS IN CHILDREN
While all children are different, there are a few signs that a child may be experiencing stress related to co-parenting triangulation and loyalty binds:
Changes in behaviour
Children may exhibit changes in their behaviour when they are experiencing stress, such as acting out, becoming more clingy or anxious, or showing changes in their sleep patterns or appetite.
Children may exhibit differences in their mood when stressed, such as becoming more irritable or emotional.
Children may have difficulty concentrating or completing tasks when stressed, which may affect their academic performance or ability to participate in activities.
Children may become more withdrawn or isolated when stressed and have difficulty connecting with others or participating in social activities.
Children may experience physical symptoms when stressed, such as headaches, stomach aches, or changes in appetite.
It is important to recognize that co-parenting conflict can affect children even if they do not show visible signs of distress. Children may be susceptible to the emotional climate in their home and may internalize their feelings or try to protect their parents from further conflict. Internalization can make it difficult to know if a child is being affected by co-parenting strife, even if they appear to be handling the situation well on the surface.
HOW TO REDUCE TRIANGULATING BEHAVIOUR
Overall, parents want what is best for their children, but sometimes it is not easy to put children’s needs first. Keeping your children out of the middle of co-parenting conflict is difficult, especially if you’re frustrated with your co-parent.
Try these tips to help reduce triangulating behaviour:
Avoid making negative comments
Avoid talking negatively about your co-parent in front of your child. Be sure they are out of earshot, completely. Strive to speak in neutral terms about them if you if it is difficult to find the positive.
Communicate directly with your co-parent
Ensure communications are direct between yourself and your co-parent instead of engaging your child as messager.
Establish clear boundaries
Boundaries are your friend. Establish boundaries with your co-parent about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and stick to those boundaries to avoid involving your child in conflicts.
Focus on your child’s needs and put them first
Your kids needs should always come first when making decisions or communicating with your co-parent.
If you’re in a situation where you and your co-parent don’t have an effective co-parenting relationship, it can be tough to know what to do. Communication is key, but it can be difficult if you can’t have a calm and rational conversation. Seek support if you have done all you can to reduce your contributions to triangulation and you cannot get your co-parent to stop their triangulating behaviour.
Consider seeking the help of a mediator, therapist, co-parent coach, and co-parenting coordinator to provide education about co-parenting triangulation, facilitate communication, and help you find ways to resolve conflicts and establish a more positive co-parenting relationship.
If your co-parent is unwilling to change their behaviour and harms your child, you may need legal guidance to protect your child’s well-being. A family lawyer can help you navigate the legal process and find ways to establish a more positive co-parenting relationship.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD DIRECTLY
Unfortunately, you might find yourself dealing with a co-parent who refuses to change their ways regardless of reasoned discussion or outside intervention. While you can’t control your co-parent’s behaviour, there are things you can do to help your child deal with the stress of triangulation on your own.
Help your child understand what’s happening
Do so without badmouthing their other parent. To explain co-parenting triangulation to a child, you can use an analogy or a simple story.
For example, you might say, “Imagine you have two friends fighting with each other. You don’t want to be in the middle of their fight, but they keep asking you to choose which one you like better or tell the other one what they said. That would be tough for you, right? It’s the same when parents disagree and involve their children in conflicts. It’s unfair and can be hard for kids to cope with.”
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings
Create a safe and supportive environment to ensure you will not be interrupted or distracted.
Validate your child’s feelings
Acknowledge their emotions. Let them know that it is normal to feel caught in the middle when two people they love are at odds. Tell them that feelings of confusion, frustration, worry, and guilt are common when this happens and that what they feel is valid.
For example, you might say: “It’s okay to feel confused or upset when caught in the middle of your parents’ conflicts. It’s not easy, but you are not alone and don’t have to handle this alone.” You can tell your child, “You don’t have to choose between your parents or keep secrets.” You can also reassure them that you will do your best to protect them from being caught in the middle of conflicts.
Be a safe haven for your child
Let them know that they can always come to you with their feelings and that you’ll help them work through whatever they’re going through.
This requires that you be a safe and non-judgmental listener. Look at this as an opportunity to connect with your child and help them cope with their stress. Validating your child is not about what you feel or think at all. It is simply your honest attempt to be present and understand what they feel, rightly or wrongly, without judgment so that they feel truly and deeply understood by you. This means managing your feelings about what is happening to your child and why it is happening.
Do not triangulate them further by sharing how upset you are about what their other parent is doing and that you have asked them to stop, and they won’t. Instead, listen without offering your views on the matter, even if you see red! Just listen.
Let your child know that you will do your best to protect their privacy and confidence. Where possible, do not tell the other parent what your child has shared and reassure your child you will not use these conversations to get the other parent in trouble.
Your child’s feelings and disclosures are vulnerable to being weaponized in conflicted co-parenting situations and in family law matters which risks triangulating them further. Use generalities rather than reciting the specifics of what your child has said to you. Make it clear that you will not disclose any information that your child has shared with you in confidence.
If you are concerned about your child’s secrets needing to be revealed in court, seek legal guidance to help you navigate the legal process and protect your child’s privacy.
Encourage the child to communicate directly with their other parent
Tell your child, “If you ever feel like you are being pulled into a situation like this, it’s okay to tell your parents that you don’t want to be involved and to ask for help if you need it.”
Encourage your child to ask their other parent to stop
Encourage your child to decline invitations to act as a messenger. Remind the child that it is not their responsibility to solve their parents’ problems even if they want to help and feel bad about refusing to help.
Seek outside support
if the triangulation is causing significant distress for the child. Consider a therapist or counsellor with expertise in conflicted co-parenting dynamics. This can provide a safe and neutral space for the child to process their emotions and learn coping skills to manage the stress of being caught in the middle.
Providing your child with a consistent and nurturing environment and access to resources such as therapy or counselling can help them navigate the challenges of co-parenting conflict and build healthy coping skills.
Triangulation is a common and damaging form of co-parenting conflict in which parents involve their child(ren) in their communication or disputes with the other parent and use their children as pawns to get their co-parent to comply with requests or demands. To protect your child from triangulation, communicate directly with your co-parent, set boundaries, and focus on your child’s needs. Be there for your child, support them, and explain triangulation to them in appropriate terms. Help your children understand that they do not have to choose between their parents and give them the tools to decline invitations to be pulled into the middle. If necessary, seek support for your child and, where needed, from a family law professional or therapist to help you resolve conflicts and establish a more positive co-parenting relationship.
Glenda Lux M.A., R. Psych.