A few weeks ago, I called my therapist, Ellen, desperate for help. My daughter was going through a super challenging situation with her friend Samantha, and I was feeling helpless and upset. I needed advice on how to be a healthy parent.
Exasperated, I asked, “What can I do to help her?”
Even as I said these words, I knew I needed to regroup. I was taking on her problems more than I should, and I knew it.
With a calm, relaxed voice, Ellen said, “Show her the book. Have her take a look at the diagrams. Empower her with this information. And make sure you are staying off the triangle, too! You also need to revisit these ideas.”
So I knew exactly what book she was talking about. This book, called Breaking Free From the Victim Trap, is about codependency. I received it from Ellen 18 years ago as I struggled to work my way through a divorce. But at that moment I couldn’t understand why she was recommending it.
However, as I looked through the diagrams with my daughter and talked about the content, I could begin to see my involvement. I could see how I needed to course-correct and become healthier.
Establishing healthy boundaries:
It’s such a shift to go from being 100% responsible for your child to giving her the space and freedom to not only make mistakes and face challenges – but to recognize her need to grow from the lessons and hardship that come along with them.
Breaking Free From the Victim Trap dives into the unhealthy patterns that can develop as you navigate intimate relationships. I could see it – jumping off the page! I was slipping into some tricky territory.
Let’s take a look at some of the things I needed to learn (and relearn):
The victim triangle as a resource on how to be a healthy parent:
“The Karpman Drama Triangle defines the roles people take on (and can switch between) in stressful, emotional, or high-conflict situations. Dr. Stephen Karpman identified three main roles that emerge: the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer.
We can often find ourselves drawn to a particular role. However, the reality is that we move around the three roles. Different circumstances pull us towards one particular pattern of behavior or another.” – says Dr. Kathryn Kassell.
Dr. Karpman developed the triangle to help clarify dysfunctional family dynamics – many involving addicts. Maybe that’s why it was hard to think of using the triangle in the context of my daughter? But on closer look, I could see my therapist’s point. It wasn’t just about dysfunctional family dynamics. It’s about all interpersonal relationships, and I needed a reminder.
How does this triangle work?
There are three positions on the triangle – the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. All three are victims as they hop around on the triangle changing positions.
According to the author, the victim is the essentially powerless person (more on this later). They are continually rescued by a rescuer who feels an overwhelming desire to feel needed. The victim and/or rescuer then becomes a persecutor – condemning others for the problems they have.
Ellen, my counselor, says, “You need to stay off the triangle here! It’s not helping her or you.” She also said, “In most of the families I work with, everyone is on the triangle. We don’t have much role modeling to see what it looks like to be healthy and off the triangle. It’s challenging work. But so worth it!”
Let’s take a look at some of the positions on the triangle and see how it applies:
The victim role – avoid victimizing your child and yourself to be a healthy parent.
According to Diane Zimberoff of Breaking Free From the Victim Trap, “The victim is the person who feels helpless and sorry for himself. He blames other people for his problems.”
It may seem counterintuitive – but if I’m becoming emotionally entangled in everything going on with my daughter, I’m making myself a victim. I’m feeling helpless, powerless, and at the effect of things I can’t control.
I’m also victimizing my daughter and sending her the message, “THIS IS SO HARD! I feel so badly for you! You shouldn’t have to go through this!“ My behavior encourages her to believe that she also has little to no power.
It was critical for me to stop and wonder how I was seeing all of this through the eyes of victimhood?
Another way of seeing it:
No matter how you look at it – we have choices—every single moment of every single day. We decide how we’re going to perceive everything that happens to us.
“You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.”
Going through hard things is part of life. You aren’t a victim. You are living! And there are opportunities for growth within every challenge that comes along.
The rescuer – a slippery slope that derails you from being a healthy parent.
This is my default role for sure. The rescuer jumps in and does things for others that they can do for themselves.
Especially when it comes to parenting, it seems the trend is to over-parent. Overparenting is a real thing. In some ways, it can be linked to rescuing. When we’re not letting our kids experience the consequences of their actions we’re rescuing them. We’re actively trying to remove any painful experiences.
Brene Brown has different advice. In fact, in her Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, she says, “Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead, I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”
In my case, I need to say, “Instead of jumping in and rescuing you, I will instead choose to hold space for you to feel everything you need to feel.” When I do this, the message I’m sending is, “Yes, this stinks! But all is well. This will be okay. You are strong and capable of managing even something as hard as this.”
Ellen also suggests saying things like:
Is there anything I can do to support you?
I love you and know this will pass.
The persecutor – a healthy parent steers clear of this role.
The persecutor comes in many forms, but one overriding theme is anger and aggression toward someone they perceive has wronged them.
Back to the situation with my daughter and her friends, I could say, “Ellie is such a mean girl! I can’t believe she excluded you!” In two seconds I jump onto the triangle and attack the person I feel is at fault.
My emotional entanglement once again strips me of power. This is how not to be a healthy parent.
I might also even turn this anger toward my daughter. I might think or say, “You’re so immature! Why do you continue to take this so personally“?
Both of these things aren’t good! I have no control over how other people in her life treat her. Also, I have no control of the pace at which she needs to move to process things in her own way. I can only work on how I treat her and work toward better managing my own emotions.
Ellen’s better idea:
Instead of becoming entangled, I need to stay clear and healthy. I want to send my daughter the message that I believe in her. I know she’s got this.
I can choose to allow the drama with my teen to impact me and take over – or I can choose not to allow it and focus on being a healthy parent. When I find myself becoming overly entangled, I need to take a good look at myself. Where are my fears and worries coming from? Is this a valid concern – or is this normal teenage growth and drama? Am I projecting my thoughts and fears onto my daughter?
My ultimate goal is to model healthy behavior for myself and as a parent. What does that look like? Have I forgotten that I have personal power? Instead of behaving reactively, I’m able to show her that I’m responsible for how I experience things happening daily.
I can say instead, “I’m sorry that you’re going through this challenging time with Samantha. I’m here for you if you want to talk or if you want to do something fun to take your mind off of this.”
Maybe the sooner they learn that life is going to be challenging – the better. We’re here to live big, full lives, and we’re going to experience incredible highs and some disappointment, too. All of this is happening to grow us up into the people we’re capable of being.
I wonder if this all comes from the separation that needs to take place as mothers raising young adult children. It’s a process of trusting and letting go. One thing that’s become clear to me is that she has her own path. Not the one I’ve written for her. But actually, a higher plan for her. And she’s already on her way! All she has to do is look down at the yellow brick road that lies beneath her feet.
Offering women wisdom for introspection and practical tools to reframe their life experiences as opportunities for personal growth, inner knowing, and deep fulfillment, helping them see the beauty, love, and possibilities within themselves and in the world around us.
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