Picking Sides, Children and Child Abuse

Triangulation is a form of child abuse and must be stopped

By Wasim Kakroo

FAMILY conflict is unavoidable. In two-parent families, exposure to hostile marital conflict is a risk factor for adolescent’s development. One of the mechanisms through which marital conflict can negatively affect the development of a young child/adolescent is when the child/adolescent gets involved into parental disputes, causing them to feel "caught in the middle" and torn between divided loyalties. Such a situation is called as triangulation.
There are numerous definitions of triangulation. Some people use the phrase in a mathematical sense, while others use it in a psychological sense. Psychologically, triangulation is the involvement of a third person in a dyadic conflict. Triangulation cannot be happen between two persons; at least three people must triangulate the conversation and the third person must ensure that one or more of the parties agrees with his or her opinion. Triangulation occurs when two members in a family bring a third party to dissolve stress, worry, or tension that exists between them. Often, fighting parents might drag their children/adolescents into the conflict in order to form a group to attack the other parent. Child triangulation is defined as child's direct involvement in parental fights and arguments and their subjective impression of being caught in the middle. Triangulation leads to involvement of a child in the conflictual interactions of his or her parents by taking sides and carrying messages in order to avoid or reduce conflict between parents.

Some parents may be unaware that they are engaged in triangulation due to ignorance. If a child is involved in a triangulation situation, he or she may say things like, "My parents make me feel caught in the middle when they argue," "my mom always asks if I notice how my dad starts the fights," "mom and dad always ask me questions when they are in the middle of an argument," "after an argument with mom, dad always comes to me and explains his point of view," and "I hate it when mom and dad involve and ask me questions when they are arguing”.

How triangulation affects children/adolescents?

Parents should be extra cautious about inadvertently or intentionally involving their children in marital disagreements because it can be harmful to the children. Triangulation can impede a child's/adolescent’s growth since triangulation frequently leads to parents viewing the child as a supportive peer rather than a child. Triangled children frequently become scapegoats, and scapegoated children have been seen to be prone to develop anger issues. According to research, girls who are involved in marital problems of their parents tend to have lower levels of personal maturity. Such children may develop intimacy issues with their children when they grow into adults. Thus, triangulation process is a boundary violation because it puts children in perplexing and distressing situations as they negotiate between parents and manage disputing loyalties. The child who is caught in triangulation may blame himself or herself and believe that the disagreement was caused by his or her actions. Adolescent’s involvement in their parents' relationship troubles puts them at risk for psychological issues like anxiety, depressive symptoms, and withdrawal tendencies.

Triangulation increases emotional reactivity in children, putting them at risk for psychological disturbance.

Conceptually, emotional reactivity to parental marital conflict is defined as "chronic elevation of arousal and dysregulation of children's emotions and behaviour, fostering adjustment problems." Prolonged feelings of distress, sadness, fear, anger, vigilance, and preoccupation with parents' marital relationship are some of the indicators.

What is the way forward?

From the above discussion it is obvious that triangulation is very detrimental to child mental health. Thus, clinicians and others who work with families must help parents keep marital difficulties within the marital dyad. Adolescent children must be excluded from their parents' marital problems; parents must enhance their ability to cope with and handle the anxiety connected with marital conflict in ways that do not involve their children. Running a family necessitates order; without stability, there is no foundation; and without foundation, there is less order.

There are numerous methods to prevent traingulation. Here are few examples:

• Establish and uphold clear boundaries within family.

• Emphasize personal accountability.

• Seek advice from outsiders (i.e. counselors, trusted mentors)

• Learn about healthy and dysfunctional family relationships.

• Work through your insecurities to empower yourself.

• Recognize and address harmful behaviour in oneself.

• Discover how to safely detach from drama.

• Consult a Marriage and Family Therapist, and encourage the entire family to participate.

• Enhance your communication abilities

How therapist can help?

Therapists can use a variety of tactics and approaches to assist families who are involved in triangulation. Because of the disparities in upbringing, social, cultural, and economic levels, it is best for the psychologist to use an integrated approach with families involved in a triangulation conflict. All of the methodologies are used in an integrated way. It enables the therapist to use the "best fitting" strategy for the client to achieve the best results.


The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar). He can be reached at 8825067196

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