One thing that hampers the health of a family system is the presence of family triangles, especially ones that are chronic or toxic. When two members of a family system experience anxiety or tension, it is common for one of them to find a third party and align with them against the other member of the family. They transfer the anxiety or tension onto that third person. An example of this would be a family where two divorced parents have not been able to establish a working relationship and one or both parents bring in one of their children to align with them against the other parent. This could be a mom telling her daughter how horrible her dad is and dumping her emotion about the relationship onto her daughter.
The price this family pays is that the daughter now has to deal with adult emotions that she is not equipped to handle. She now has to navigate a relationship with both of her parents that do not feel safe, secure or stable. The parents also are unable to build healthy lines of communications while this is happening because the anxiety and tension are getting played out between a parent and daughter instead of getting resolved between them.
One of the antidotes to minimizing triangles within a family system is by working on broadening lines of communication and establishing healthy lines of communication. In the above example, if the parents improve their relationship with each other and establish healthy lines of communication they improve their relationship with their daughter and enhance their ability to have influence as her parents.
An appropriate intervention for this family would be for them to go to counseling together to work out their tension and anxiety with each other instead of using their daughter a tension reducer. A communication skill we teach families at New Haven is to hold a community meeting once a week so members of the family have a structure to air concerns with each other and facilitate open lines of communication. For families that use this effectively, they know that they will never have more than seven days go by without something getting addressed openly.
Brian McElligott is the Executive Clinical Director of New Haven’s Saratoga Springs campus