Reversing the Toxic Triangle with Your Spouse & Teen

A common dilemma many parents face is when their co-parent disciplines the children with a harsh or negative tone.

They know — on the one hand — that parents need to support each other, yet on the other hand, they can’t support abusive or negative treatment of their child or teenager.

It’s the classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

“I can betray my wife or betray my son,” a dad once told me. “I hate my choices here, and I resent both of them for putting me in this position. I feel so helpless and stuck.”

If you read my earlier blog post about the Family Pond, you’ll remember that families are social ecologies

And just like biological ecologies, there are homeostatic forces at work that resist change.

So once a family finds itself stuck in this toxic triangle, they can have a pretty hard time finding their way out of it. Each member of the triangle feels controlled and limited by the other two.

Let’s see how this played out with the Simon (Dad), Becca (Mom), and their son Andre (13).

A Closer Look at the Toxic Triangle

Becca, a high school English teacher, has always been the primary parent for the children, Andre and his older brother, Philip (17).

Mom is, in many ways, the right person for the job.

She loves kids and thoroughly enjoyed all the activities, projects and routines with the kids.

Andre, always an active kid, was diagnosed with ADHD in the fifth grade and was placed on medication that he takes regularly. Even with the medication, Becca has held the burden of helping Andre stay on top of his schoolwork and keeping him on task with his responsibilities.

In fact, they were very close with Andre being reliant on his mom to help keep his life together. There was plenty of shared time together that included some interpersonal squabbles and even some yelling and maternal exasperation.

But in the end, things moved on and Andre did quite well.

Simon, while he often traveled and worked late nights, was still an involved parent and spent time with each of his sons and both together on weekends. He was home at a reasonable hour some of the time and participated in helping with homework and family life when he did.

Over the past year or so, things began to change.

As Andre entered his teen years and moved from middle school to high school, he resisted his mother’s help and support more than simply fussing a bit before acquiescing to her input.

Now he resisted with resentment and would give her a really hard time.

Becca, who was most concerned with Andre’s ability to successful make the transition to high school, was reluctant to let go and leave it to Andre to sink or swim on his own.

So they struggled and fought in a way that was…

  • loud,
  • unproductive,
  • and was beginning to have a seriously negative impact on the whole family.

Andre was beginning to develop a generally negative attitude and Becca was becoming increasingly…

  • frustrated,
  • burned out,
  • and negative…

…not only with Andre but also with all aspects of life.

Simon and Philip were experiencing home life as just another stressful place to be.

Simon was perplexed.

He always appreciated how well Becca did with Andre but didn’t know how to support her with her current attitude and behavior. He didn’t like the way she yelled and berated Andre and he didn’t like Andre’s disrespectful attitude or his irresponsible behavior, although irresponsible behavior for Andre was nothing new.

When they came to see me, we focused on ending their Control Battle which included helping Andre take greater responsibility for earning the privileges that goes along with the independence he wanted and needed, now that he was transitioning into his adolescence.

BONUS: Are you concerned that you may be in an unhealthy Control Battle with your teen? Download my free self-assessment checklist just below this blog post.

As the counseling sessions were just getting going and behaviors hadn’t yet begun to change, Simon asked the critical and very common question:

Simon: Neil, when they get into it, with one of their typical fights, I don’t know what to do. If I do nothing, Becca tells me that I’m not supporting her. If I try to take over, she accuses me of undermining her and mollycoddling Andre. If I join her in getting mad at Andre, Andre feels ganged up on and won’t cooperate at all. I feel completely stuck. I just wish they’d work it out and leave me out of it.

Neil: You’re asking an important question Simon and I’m glad you’re asking it. You’re describing a dilemma that I’ve seen a lot of over the years. I’ve seen this particular dilemma so many times that I actually needed to come up with a solution for it and I’ll share it with you here…

First of all, letting a mother and son work out a problem on their own and you not get involved at all, is often a good thing to do. But when there is a chronic problem where your kid is being disrespectful and your wife is acting negatively and ineffectually, then you need to get involved in a way that will make things better.

Simon: I’m happy to do that Neil, I just don’t know what to do.

Neil: Simon, there are two ways to help and sometimes you can do both.

First, you can go to Becca, put your hand on her shoulder and offer your support. Such as, “It’s really frustrating when Andre doesn’t listen and is so disrespectful. It’s just not acceptable for him to talk to you that way.” (Or words to that effect.) When Becca feels your support, she almost assuredly will calm down.

Secondly, you can go to Andre and put your hand on his shoulder and offer him some support. You can say something like, “I know it’s hard always having adults telling you what to do and sometimes Mom gets pretty frustrated and angry. It’s never acceptable however to be disrespectful, particularly to your mom who has been there for you in so many ways. Just listen to her words, not her tone, and do as she asks.”

So the simple answer to your question about what to do when Becca and Andre are fighting is the same for all parents feeling stuck with this dilemma:

  1. Do not take sides!
  2. Offer emotional support to the parent for their parenting.
  3. Offer emotional support and clear guidance to your teen for cooperating.
  4. In this way you are supporting both of them in their appropriate roles.

If you think of the “Pond” analogy, Becca and Andre became a stagnant corner of the pond and you offered fresh water and oxygen.

You can’t really do more than that, and you shouldn’t do less either.

Posted in Parenting.