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When Should I Intervene Between My Parents?

You’re an adult and a parent yourself; the last thing you want to deal with is family drama between your parents. Whether they’re together or not, your parents will always be jointly linked to you -- and now to your own children. It may not matter what their conflicts with each other are about; they may try to pull you in to them. Whether or not you should intervene is a decision up to you, but make it with caution.

What Do Parents Fight About?

The better question is, what don’t parents fight about? Maybe a new grandchild has set off heated discussions about the way they spend their time; perhaps they’re arguing about each other’s health, or it’s possible there has been infidelity. Whether they’ve been fighting your whole life, or they’re working through new developments, you’re not the first adult child to deal with parents at odds with each other -- about anything and everything.

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When Your Parents Come to You

It might feel natural when your parents come to you with their relationship problems, especially if you experience a close emotional bond with either or both of them. But it isn’t necessarily healthy. “Adult children can be pulled into pretty much any conflict with their parents,” says Dr. Dakesa Piña, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Illinois State University. “From a clinical or counseling standpoint, we call it triangulation. Triangulation is usually not a good thing.”

Triangulation can take many forms: Perhaps your mother complains to you about your father and wants you to take her side in an argument. Maybe your father refuses to speak to your mother and asks you to be a messenger on your behalf. Whatever the case, it’s your parents’ responsibility to work out their problems with each other. “We like to encourage people to settle differences that happen between the two of them on a one-on-one basis,” says Dr. Piña.

Your Parents Are a Separate Unit

In family therapy, many counselors describe families as systems of relationships with sets of subsystems. For example, your extended family with your parents, siblings, spouse and children is one large system. Your relationships between your spouse and/or children is a subsystem. Your parents’ relationship with each other is another subsystem. “There’s a parental subsystem that’s like the foundation of your house,” explains Dr. Piña. “You can think of the children as the walls of the house; they’re a different subset. If you think of those subsystems as being two different units, you usually don’t want to intermix conflicts between them.”

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Maintaining Boundaries

A healthy relationship between subsystems in a family requires well-defined and maintained boundaries, or limits. “Boundaries are really important with your parents,” says Dr. Piña. How to set them “depends on where your relationship is with your parents on a continuum. You can go from having an abusive relationship with your parents, to having a very loving and supporting relationship with your parents, [to a relationship] that might turn into enmeshment. Enmeshment is when your parents are super involved with everything -- and it might disturb your life.”

Wherever your relationship is on the continuum, if your parents are affecting your life negatively, you probably need to set better boundaries. “Every person is going to do that differently,” says Dr. Piña, “depending on what [his or her] value system is.” Whatever boundaries are appropriate for you -- and your family subsystem -- the most important thing is to communicate. If you have a spouse or partner, agree what your family boundaries are first.

Then, go to your parents. “I would encourage it to be the person whose parents it is” to have that conversation, says Dr. Piña, as opposed to having your partner or someone else do it for you. “Sit down and talk about the different ground rules for that relationship.” If your parents are arguing, you may have to tell them that they should keep their opinions about each other to themselves.

When Intervention Is Necessary

While in most situations your intervention isn’t appropriate, some extreme circumstances may warrant it. “There are appropriate times to intervene,” says Piña. “It’s very rare, but if an argument is turning into a situation of abuse, it’s important to intervene. Abuse can be verbal -- like name calling. It can be emotional -- like withdrawing affection, ignoring somebody for months on end. It can be physical – somebody being hit or kicked. And of course there’s sexual abuse. It is possible to be raped even if you are married, if you do not consent to any type of sexual act.”

In these extreme situations, the victim of abuse may need help from a third person. But, while Dr. Piña encourages intervention, “that doesn’t mean that an adult child is going to walk into the middle of a domestic dispute,” she notes, which could be dangerous for your own well-being. In these cases, it’s best to empower victims to help themselves. Lead them, for example, to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and other outlets to report abuse, or seek professional counseling support.

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