Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Confronting Problematic Parents: Getting Siblings and Other Interfering Relatives to Butt Out

In this blog, I have written many posts about the different strategies for metacommunicating or openly discussing any ongoing repetitive dysfunctional interactions between parents and adult children. The goal is to put a stop to them to everyone's satisfaction. Whenever people attempt to initiate this process, somehow word seems to get out to the rest of the family that something is afoot, and everyone gets scared. 

I'm not always sure how this even happens; my patients may swear up and down that they have not said anything yet to anyone. But sometimes even relatives that did not seem to be involved at all seem to just come out of the woodwork and get involved.

Even so, it is usually predictable which family members are going to try to interfere and abort the whole process. Doing this, in the family systems literature, is called triangulating oneself into two other people's relationship. Despite appearances to the contrary, it is not done out of spite but out of fear— often the very same fears that the person who plans 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 again will not be addressed in this post.

Before getting started with the metacommunication process with a primary attachment figure like a parent, it is usually first necessary to try to prevent these other relatives from interfering. In this section I will discuss strategies for accomplishing this. 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 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.  

The most typical detriangulation strategy consists of four tasks:

1. First, metacommunicators inform the potential triangulator about their plans to talk to the parental figures, and explain the justification for doing so. They explain what they may have discovered about the family dynamics, and also explain in some detail the approach with the parent they plan to take. The planned approach is something that should have already been worked out by the person, with or without the help of a therapist trained in effective techniques and strategies.

2. The metacommunicators then 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 the metacommunicators had when they 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 dyadic relationships within the family (for example, between the parents). Sometimes, a sibling may fear having to step into a family role previously played by the metacommunicator.

3. Third, the metacommunicators attempt to reassure the triangulator about his or her concerns. The metacommunicators describe how they plan to prevent the negative reactions in the parents that the potential triangulator is concerned about.

They also admit to the triangulator that they themselves have had similar concerns. Even though they may have felt the same exact way in the past, however, metacommunicators often become extremely annoyed with the relative for having any negative attitude towards the plan. As difficult as it may be to muster, an empathic response based on identifying the triangulator's feelings in oneself is far more effective in getting the triangular to keep out of it.

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

4. Last, and very importantly, the metacommunicators 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 the patient will not be drawn into a power struggle about it.

Many times, a sibling, for example, is already aware that the family behavior patterns are problematic in the way the patient describes, and becomes only too happy to let the metacommunicators 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 him or her. Better someone else than them!

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

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