You broke up with your narcissistic partner and now you are co- or parallel parenting with them. You have moved on with your life and you’ve found a new partner who supports you.
The kids come over every weekend and you begin to notice that they seem tired and withdrawn. They often feel angry, confused, or rejected and may even show symptoms of depression and resentment toward you or your new partner. Your child may be experiencing the pain of triangulation. In the context of narcissism, triangulation is when the narcissist attempts to control the flow, interpretation, and nuances of communication between two separate actors or groups of actors.
Triangulation is happening when one or both parents rely on the child for support and communication with the other parent. They might draw the child or children into a conflict instead of resolving it with the other parent.
When the tension and focus of a parent is shifted to a child, that child may feel burdened and frustrated and may attempt to withdraw from the relationship with their parents altogether.
Triangulation can lead to psychological problems in the children. They may experience significant stress, anxiety, or other mental health concerns as a result of the triangulation.
Triangulation can also interfere with a child’s development, since it often leads the parents to view the child as a supportive peer rather than an impressionable child and thus the behavior becomes a form of emotional incest.
As a parent, it is important to protect the mental and emotional health of your child and support them in becoming empowered children.
You can teach your children to protect themselves without directly asking them about the behavior of the other parent.
(Of course, some circumstances may call for you to tactfully address the issue with the child, letting them know that you are aware of what is happening and they are safe to discuss their concerns with you if they need or want to).
Using some age-appropriate hypothetical scenarios they might actually experience with their peers, you can help your child understand how to navigate through difficult situations at home.
For example, you might say to your child:
When someone says bad things about your friend, do you
a) believe it and repeat it
b) stop being friends with your friend
c) ask your friend if what you heard is true
d) tell the person that you like your friend and you do not want to hear bad things being said about them
If you believe your child is the victim of triangulation, it is important that you take serious steps to protect yourself and your child. Children should not be placed in emotional adult situations, especially when they are being manipulated into taking sides against their own parent. You can help your children to defend themselves but you may also need to seek professional or legal advice to protect yourself and your relationship with your children.
Simply put, triangulation in relation to children is psychological child abuse. The offending parent is not likely to see that what they’re doing is wrong if this is the strategy they use to deal with you, their former partner. It is up to you to set a boundary to let the other parent know that what they are doing is not ok. Perhaps this will mean that you make an appointment with a psychologist to have your child evaluated. Keep good records of your observations of your children when they are with you and displaying symptoms of depression or distress. Seek legal support and understand your rights and your child’s rights.
Children should be healthy and happy and stress free. If children aren’t comfortable and happy, there is a reason for it. It is your responsibility as a parent to make sure your child has a stable and happy environment that they can thrive in. It is important that your child knows that it is ok to set boundaries and that they learn how to say no to behavior that makes them feel bad, even when it is coming from a parent whom they love and trust.
All parents make mistakes but psychological child abuse is one mistake that doesn’t have to be made. If you see something that isn’t right, that is harmful for a child, especially your own child, you must take steps to protect them. Psychologically abused children grow up to be psychologically damaged adults. We can prevent this damage from happening by being empowered parents and by acting on behalf of our own vulnerable and precious children.