Confronting Dysfunctional Parents: Getting Sibs to Butt Out

Here are strategies to stop other relatives from interfering with your plans.

Posted May 11, 2018

 Markhor by Rennett Stowe, CC by 2.0
Source: Flickr: Markhor by Rennett Stowe, CC by 2.0

I have written posts about a variety of different strategies for metacommunicating — openly discussing any ongoing, repetitive, dysfunctional interactions between parents and adult children with the goal of putting a stop to them. Whenever someone attempts to begin this process, somehow word seems to get out to the rest of the family that something is afoot. Other relatives may start to panic, fearing that the parent involved may become unstable.

This seems to happen with the patients I coach in metacommunication, even when they swear up and down that they have not said anything to anyone yet. Maybe it’s telepathy or something; I don’t know. Even relatives that never seemed to have been involved at all may come out of the woodwork and try to interfere.

Most of the time, however, it is predictable which family members are going to try to interfere and abort the whole process. Doing so, in the family systems literature, is called triangulating oneself into the relationship of two other people.

Despite appearances to the contrary, it is not done out of spite, but out of fear — often the exact same fears that the person who is planning to metacommunicate has about the whole process. Most often, the triangulator is a sibling, but sometimes it's an aunt or an uncle.

If it's a grandparent, that complicates matters quite a bit, so I will not be discussing that here. Sometimes one's own spouse may get in the way — that is a indicative of a very important marital issue, and will not be addressed in this post.

In order to be successful with the metacommunication process with a primary attachment figure like a parent, it is usually first necessary to take measures to prevent other relatives from interfering. In this section, I will discuss strategies for accomplishing this goal. Another caveat: the larger the family, the more potential triangulators there are. If multiple people are likely to get involved, this can make things more complex by many orders of magnitude — so if you have a small family and want to do this, be thankful.

As with all metacommunication, detriangulation strategies need to be developed and tailored to the individual family member who is being targeted. I will just be presenting a prototypical, basic strategy here.  

Assuming the planned approach with your parent is something that you have already worked out, with or without the help of a therapist who's familiar with effective techniques and strategies, the most typical detriangulation strategy consists of four tasks:

1. First, inform the potential triangulator about your plans to talk to the parental figures, and explain the justification for doing so. Explain anything you may have discovered about the family dynamics. Then explain in some detail the approach with the parent you plan to take.

2. Next, ask the triangulator what concerns he or she may have about the consequences of the aforementioned plan. As I mentioned, these concerns often turn out to be nearly identical to the reservations that you had when you first considered embarking on the process. 

For siblings and other relatives, the concerns usually center around a fear that the primary target will not be able to handle the confrontation and may decompensate in some way, or that the confrontation may create tensions in other important relationships within the family (for example, between the parents). Sometimes, siblings also may fear that they will have to step into a family role that you have been playing, in a situation in which the parent prefers to have it played by you.

3. Attempt to reassure the triangulator about his or her concerns. Describe how you plan to prevent the negative reactions in the parents that the potential triangulator is concerned about.

A useful strategy is to admit to the triangulator that you yourself  have had similar concerns. Even though you may have felt the same exact way in the past, however, you may become extremely annoyed with the relative for having any negative attitude towards your plan. As difficult as it may be to muster, give an empathic response based on your experience of having worried over the same concerns.

If you can remain empathic during this discussion, the potential triangulator may even make helpful suggestions about how you can refine the strategy!

4. Last, and very importantly, make the following type of statement to the potential triangulator: "I really think it would be best if I handled this myself, so I would appreciate if you did not talk to Mom about this before I have had a chance to do it. However, if you feel that you must warn her or discuss with her the issues as they apply to you, then go ahead and do so." 

The last sentence is designed to reduce the likelihood that the potential triangulator will go ahead and interfere! Family systems folk call this a paradoxical request. The statement appeals to the triangulator for cooperation, while indicating that you will not be drawn into a power struggle about it.

Many times, a sibling or other relative is already aware that the family behavior patterns are problematic in the way you describe and becomes only too happy to let you try to take care of it. Furthermore, if the triangulator were to broach the taboo subject with the target, the initial negative reactions might fall on them. Better you than them!

If the triangulator does go ahead and spill the beans, so to speak, you will be in a better position to ask the parent about what the triangulator had said. Knowing this will help you better understand, and plan a response to, any negative reactions from the parent that were set up by the triangulator’s interference.