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Collaboration vs. triangulation in the care of gender questioning youth

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

This article republished with kind courtesy of Stephanie Winn, LMFT. The original post can be found at

As I continue holding supportive dialogues for concerned parents of ROGD youth, several recurring themes arise in almost every case. One major player in the sticky situation we have collectively found ourselves in is triangulation.

In systems-oriented psychology, including family therapy, triangulation refers to a situation in which two parties who are at odds with one another seek to relieve the tension through a third party. This third party typically joins with one side and is experienced as providing momentary relief or deeply desired validation, but may ultimately worsen the problem by fueling the drama, obscuring the truth, enabling a maladaptive coping mechanism, or driving a wedge between two parties who need to find a way to live with each other, despite their differences.

Think: extramarital affairs.

Think: a couple in a dysfunctional relationship projecting their conflicts onto their son, pressuring him to choose between mommy and daddy.

Think: colleagues gossiping about one another rather than addressing their issues in a respectful, private, and professional manner.

Not too long ago, it was considered the norm that most professionals and other responsible adults involved in helping children — teachers, doctors, and therapists, for example — would generally support those children’s parents, barring exceptional situations of abuse in which an intervention was necessary. It was understood that, while no parents are perfect, it is generally in the best interest of a child to experience a sense of cohesion between the supportive adults in their world. Most reasonable, well-intentioned people knew that it wasn’t their place to interfere with another adult’s imperfect parenting, and that if they had any concerns they felt the need to voice, it was best to express those to the parent in private, not in front of the child. We all more or less agreed that it was wise to be even more circumspect about our own judgments whenever there were cultural or religious differences. Who are we to tell a child raised in a different culture or religion that their parents’ worldview and value system is wrong?

None of this is to say that there are never circumstances in which it is appropriate to intervene. That’s what child protective services are for. If a child is being abused or neglected, or a parent otherwise has significant problems with addiction or behavioral health that would prevent them from nurturing and protecting their child, then community members have a responsibility to look after the welfare of the child, even if it means, in some extreme circumstances, that the child is temporarily or permanently removed from the home.

But even then — even then! — I can tell you from personal experience working with the child welfare system that the goal is always reunification, until it has repeatedly become painfully apparent that the parent is unfit with no hope of redemption. I have seen parents go in and out of homelessness, addiction, and incarceration and still not have their parental rights terminated, often leaving their children in multiple foster care homes over the course of years without knowing whether they will be reunited or adopted. Social workers and foster parents are trained not to speak ill of the parents around the child, but always to try to engage in a way that simultaneously protects both the child’s health and safety, and their ability to maintain a positive image of their struggling parent. The system has innumerable flaws, but triangulating children against their parents has not been one of them… until now.

Now, we are in upside-down land. A world where stable, loving, rightfully concerned parents are treated as despicable, unsafe bigots, while lonely, awkward, immature, social-media-saturated adolescents are being celebrated for “knowing who they are.” I listen with grave sympathy to parents whose authority to protect and nurture the children they have known, loved, and raised from birth is being undermined by well-intentioned but short-sighted teachers, doctors, therapists, and social workers. The result is triangulation, and it’s terrible for children.

When I was having a hard time as a teen — and that’s putting it mildly — there were caring adults who provided a safe space for me to vent about my issues with my mother. They heard me out, and sometimes they even showed with sympathy that they could see what I was talking about. But they didn’t encourage my behavior. They didn’t recommend binge drinking, running away, cutting, or dropping out of school as valid coping mechanisms. Predators encouraged those behaviors. Only junkie pedophiles would want such things for a young girl. Any adult of sound heart and mind would want to see me safe, at home, in school, getting along with my imperfect mother, coping with life’s stressors without endangering myself. Pause I wrote that about a week ago, then had to pause to get back to other work. I’ve never been very good at writing in segments over time. Usually, I get an article done all in one go, or not at all. This can make it difficult to be consistent with my work, and attend to the various things that need doing in a given day. But I knew this one was important to come back to, for a few reasons.

One was the attention this tweet thread received, which included requests for an article on this very topic. Well, folks, here it is.

Another was a disturbing series of events that happened to people I am working with in my therapy practice. Of course, I don’t share details about my clients’ lives. But the timing of these events was uncanny, quite literally interrupting my process of writing this article on the very same issue.

So we’ll return to the topic of triangulation. Perhaps most of the points have been made already, between this article and the tweets. Perhaps more will follow in your comments. (Thanks for engaging!)

I just can’t stress enough, from a mental health standpoint, how devastating it is to drive a wedge between children and their parents. The consequences are too vast to articulate in this article. If I’m aggravated by the short-sighted, well-intentioned but ignorant and hubristic triangulation that is so prevalent today — and I’m just a therapist, with no at-risk kids of my own — how many hours of sleep have actual parents lost?

One of the colleagues I recently had to interact with in handling a sticky situation emphasized their perception of a youth’s alleged needs for “power, autonomy, and control” as key to helping them. But that’s developmentally inappropriate. People who are still in the process of maturing should not have more power, autonomy, or control than they are prepared to handle without endangering themselves. They need age-appropriate boundaries, structure, protection, and guidance. A teenager is no more prepared to make permanent, life-altering decisions than a toddler is to drive a car. That’s why we have laws governing the ages at which one can drive, vote, smoke, drink, get tattoos or piercings, or consent to sex. To be a (metaphorical) toddler at the wheel is actually quite terrifying, and bad for mental health. At its worst, too much power and control in the hands of someone too young and unqualified can lead to them developing a permanently disordered character structure (such as Narcissistic, Borderline, Histrionic, or Antisocial Personality Disorder).

I say this as someone who had too much freedom and control myself, at too young an age. Sure, I pushed for it at the time; that’s what teenagers do, especially when their attachment relationships and sense of safety are disrupted, or life events have thrust upon them a great deal of responsibility to handle alone. But what we want isn’t always what we need. The more young, naive and impulsive we are, the more our wants and needs are at odds. Good parenting should help the maturation process of learning to want what we need. When we reach adulthood, if all goes well, we can for the most part trust ourselves to make healthy decisions about how we feed, move, and rest our bodies; who we spend time with; what goals we aspire toward, and how we approach them. But we had to learn to dovetail our wants with our needs. It’s not guaranteed that we will do so, left to our own devices.

In classic psychoanalytic terms, this is the process of the Ego reconciling the Id and the Superego. The Ego — a mature, integrated, self-aware part of us, which possesses integrity and depth of character, gradually learns to take the lead in guiding our childish impulses and animal instincts (the Id — “give me, I want”) while also accommodating the standards of the higher, moral self (the Superego — “I should”). Stated differently, we discover that what the Ego needs — and wills accordingly — is a healthy compromise between what the Id wants and what the Superego dictates. A person with a healthy ego structure has a functional personality, while one lacking this can become ineffective, manipulative, self-sabotaging, or chronically mentally ill.

Anyone who has reached a degree of professional qualification to be able to offer advice to others must possess at least adequate Ego functioning to be able to manage their day-to-day life. An Id left running the show will quickly run it into the ground, playing video games until 3am with candy wrappers and beer bottles scattered all over the room. Worse, it could land a person in a hospital or prison. But it may be easy for some adults who are accustomed to functioning adequately to forget that it takes a real process for a human to learn to manage their life without allowing their impulses to destroy it. This forgetting has real consequences when those same adults are given power to direct and intervene with youth who don’t yet have those same maturational abilities. Young people do not know, and often do not care, what’s best for them. Until they do, it is their parents’ job to give them what they need, regardless of what they want. This requires boundaries, and often involves a degree of conflict. Meddling in that conflict is like performing surgery. It should not be done by those who do not know what they are really operating on, or how they are affecting the health of the entire system.

If we are to solve problems collectively as adults, we must restore a sense of respect, deference, and humility for the hard and complicated labor of love that is parenting, and ask ourselves how we can support parents returning to their rightful place as authority and attachment figures with the power to guide their children to a point where they truly are not needed anymore.

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