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The purpose of this article is to illustrate the importance of boundary setting during parental conflict. Often children are incorporated both voluntarily and involuntarily in dyadic confrontations that involve the parents. This research shows the long term and short term effects on both the parent and child psychologically and physiologically. Boundary setting is important for the growth, development and current maintenance of a family. Involving children in arguments is not only detrimental to the parents’ marital relationship, but also damaging to the parent-child relationship. This paper illustrates cause and effect consequences of triangulation.
Family Conflict and Triangulation
Familial conflict is inevitable. A multitude of quantitative and qualitative data has been accumulated in order to improve familial relationships. Numerous studies and focus groups spotlighted adolescents and their parents to find more data on triangulation and its negative effects on families. According to Franck and Buehler (2007), a triangulation study was conducted on 506 teens and their mothers. The study focused on conflict properties, cognitive appraisals of threat and blame, emotional insecurity, and triangulation to determine the possibility of a direct relationship between adolescent behavior problems, marital distress, and maternal depression (Franck and Buehler 2007). After thorough research, it was found that marital hostility and distress were associated with adolescent behavioral problems and familial stressors (Franck & Buehler 2007). This paper will focus on parental and child triangulation and its effect on both the adolescent and the adult.
Triangulation can be defined in a multitude of ways. Some may use the term mathematically, while others use it psychologically. Fosco and Grych (2008) broadly described the psychological term for triangulation as the involvement of a third person in a dyadic conflict. Triangulation is not possible with two people; it has to involve at least three people triangulate the conversation and ensure one or more of the parties agrees with his or her opinion. Buehler and Welsh (2009) stated that “triangulation occurs when two people in a family bring a third party to dissolve stress, anxiety or tension that exists between them.” Often feuding parents might involve their children in the conflict to “gang up on” the other parent. A more in-depth definition that better describes the target group focused on in this paper illustrates a family and child triangulation as children’s direct participation in parental disagreements and their subjective sense of feeling caught in the middle (Fosco and Grych, 2008).
Due to ignorance, some parents may be unaware that they are involved in triangulation. Some statements a child might say if he or she is involved in a triangulation situation are “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” “I hate it when mom and dad involve and ask me questions when they are arguing”. Parents should be more cognizant of accidentally or purposely involving children in marital disputes because it can be detrimental to the child.
Efforts to better understand the impact of interparental disagreements on children have identified a number of factors that may elude to the fact that exposure to continual hostile and poorly resolved conflict can cause adjustment problems. (Fosco and Grych 2008). Behavior issues may become more frequent when boundaries are not set between parental arguments and children. According to Fosco and Grych (2008), appraisals reflect children’s opinions on parental conflict. Parental conflict can be detrimental to the child’s well-being or the functioning of the family unit; therefore, the child may hold himself or herself responsible and believe that the disagreement was caused by his or her conduct. Parents who involve children in marital confrontations fail to realize how detrimental involvement can be to their child. Specifically, appraisals of threat and self-blame, emotional reactivity and distress, and triangulation into parental discrepancies each have been made known to play a key role in the relationship involving parental discord and child maladjustment, thereby making the child feel responsible for ending or resolving the conflict. (Fosco and Grych 2008).
The effects of parental triangulation on the child can cause long term damage. According to Buehler and Welsh (2009) “Parental conflict and tension are proposed to induce emotional arousal in children, triggering emotional and physiological responses. Involving children in arguments can be both mentally and physically exhausting for the child. “Families that show patterns of triangulation have emotional, and physiological, responses that tend to have difficulty differentiating when not to ‘turn off’ than in families with better boundary maintenance” (Buehler and Welsh 2009). Often parents will include the child in arguments forcing the child to choose a side. Franck and Buehler focused on triangulation that occurs when parents bring a child into an argument by using the child as a messenger or buffer between the parents; as a confidante or counselor about issues with the other parent, the child is forced to ally against the other parent during marital disputes. By allowing children to get involved in domestic disputes, not only is the child negatively affected, but the involvement is also detrimental to the marriage.
Triangulation amplifies adolescences’ risk for disruptive behavior because this process impedes with numerous prospective strategies that have been found to shield youths from the potential harmful effects of marital hostility (Franck and Buehler 2007). Research shows that repeated exposure to parental conflict can affect a child’s experience, expression and control of emotion (Fosco and Grych 2008). Children subjected to constant triangulation can experience major emotional tribulations as well. It was found through trauma theories that recurring exposure to affectively disturbing events undermines a child’s ability to regulate his or her emotions (Fosco and Grych 2008). When a child is unable to regulate his or her emotions it becomes difficult for them to maintain control.
With this information, it can be concluded that a child from an argumentative family may display a greater sensitivity to his or her parent’s conflicts (Fosco and Grych 2008). Children who are exposed to tumultuous relationships and constant triangulation by parents are not as thoroughly researched as other topics that have been researched that involve family conflict. Beuhler and Welsh (2009) stated “Triangulation into parents’ disputes has received much less empirical attention than has verbal and physical interparental aggression; however, some evidence exists that triangulation places youth at risk for adjustment problems, particularly internalizing problems such as anxiety, depressive symptoms, and social withdrawal” (2009).
Triangulation does not just occur during an argument between parents with a child present. It also occurs long term when a child is made a confidante. Franck and Buehler (2007) found that when parents get upset they have a tendency to bring children into the argument by making them messengers between the parents.
Triangulation can be caused by a number of different reasons. Martial conflict and depression have been named to be some of the main reasons triangulation occurs. Parents involved in domestic disputes have a tendency to want a witness to validate their argument. Counselors, friends, family members, and children have been known to get pulled in to the dispute. Scholars found data proving that parents that involve people in their domestic disputes may be depressed (Frank and Beuhler 2007). Parents feel validated when loved ones and friends side with them in the domestic dispute. Frank and Beuhler (2007), searched even deeper and found that a mother’s depression is more closely related to internalizing disruptive behaviors in children than fathers. Frank and Beuhler (2007) felt that a father’s depression is more closely related to poor cognitive functioning in his children than internalizing problem behaviors.
Studies show that triangulation affects both the parent and the child’s relationships in a negative way. “One of the mechanisms by which marital conflict becomes a risk factor is the triangulation of the child or adolescent into parental disputes such that youth feel ‘caught in the middle’ and torn between divided loyalties” (Buehler and Welsh 2009). During an argument, parents feel that their point is more validated if the child agrees with them. Unfortunately, the long term affects of adolescent affirmation during parental altercations are detrimental to the marital relationship. “Although their involvement in a parental disagreement may be effective in deflecting attention from problems in the marriage, it may intensify the impact of parental conflict on children’s functioning by making them the target of parental anger or disrupting their relationship with one or both parents” (Fosco and Grych 2008). Studies show that it is pertinent that the children be left out of parental conflict. “It is clear that triangulation of adolescents also is harmful to adolescents in married families. Thus, clinicians and others who work with families need to assist parents with keeping marital problems within the martial dyad. Adolescent children need to be left out or blocked from parents’ marital issues; Parents need to improve their ability to cope with and handle the anxiety associated with martial conflict in ways that do not involve their children” (Buehler and Welsh 2009).
In addition to disrupting marital stability, triangulation can cause long term issues in the growth and development of the family. Fosco and Grych (2008) stated that when children perceive conflict as a threat to themselves or the family, they tend to worry about the stability of the family relationship. Running a family requires order, with no stability, there is no foundation; and with no foundation it tends to be less order. Parents should lead by example when teaching children. Often children mimic their parents and learn from observations. “Parents who frequently resort to triangulation as a means of managing their disputes may be less prone to teaching or modeling adaptive conflict resolution to their children” (Fosco And Grych 2008).
Avoiding the involvement of children can be very difficult for some parents. Not only does triangulation temporarily diffuse marital arguments, but it can also allude to the vindication or validation of a parents actions. Fosco and Grych (2008) found information proving that triangulation could shape the impact of parental discord in children. When the child feels caught in the middle and observes that the attention of the argument is deflected from the parents and reverted to them, they may make a habit of involving themselves and marital disputes. If disruptive behavior is effective at distracting attention from marital problems, children may develop more stable patterns of acting out in stressful circumstances.
Triangulation can occur both consciously and subconsciously. Unfortunately, if in the familial setting boundaries are not in place, detrimental repercussions can occur. Triangulation can occur in many different forms. Whether it includes the parent and child, grandparent and grandchild or siblings and parent, an unconstructive outcome is almost inevitable. The need to want to be right and acquire support is human nature and understandable. However, when you engage children in tumultuous relationships and put them in the middle of altercations, serious repercussions may occur for the child and adult. Rather than involving relatives and friends in conflict, it is important that families seek out counseling to secure the growth and stability of the family structure.
Therapists can utilize a number of different techniques and or approaches to help families partaking in triangulation. Due to the difference of upbringing, social, cultural, and economic levels, it is best that the counselor incorporate an integrative approach to families who are involved in a triangulation conflict. An integrative approach incorporates all of all the approaches. It allows the therapist to utilize the “best fitting” approach for the client to obtain optimal results. Conflict is inevitable and felt to be manifest, but if familial conflict involves triangulation it is sure to end unconstructively.
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