Friendships and relationships can change so quickly in a teenager’s life. It’s all part of learning and growing as our rangatahi take on different roles and try out new perspectives within their peer groups.

There is a model for these interactions that is useful for identifying and noticing patterns of behaviour. It’s called the Karpman drama triangle and was developed in the 1960s by Stephen Karpman.

It goes like this: imagine or draw an equal-sided upside-down triangle.  At the top-left point write in the word persecutor. At the top-right point write in the word rescuer. At the bottom, write in the word victim

These are the roles that are playing out when your rangatahi is caught in the drama triangle. The themes of blame, resentment, justification and being right emerge.

You may already notice them

If your rangatahi is playing the victim role they will be feeling, and saying things like: 

  • “It’s not fair.”
  • “They made me.”
  • “I should.”
  • “I have to.”

If your rangatahi is playing the role of the persecutor, they will be feeling, and saying things like:

  • “It’s not fair.”
  • “They are (insert disliked behaviour).”
  • “They should.”
  • “They have to.”

If your rangatahi is playing the role of the rescuer, they will be feeling and saying things like:

  • “It’s not fair.”
  • “They are being (insert disliked behaviour).”
  • “They should.”
  • “They have to.”
  • “Let me help you.”

These are all judgement orientated thoughts and behaviours. No matter which role they are playing. Unconsciously, these roles are often played out in families and as children become aware of these roles they can go through a very distinct stage of ‘even-stevens’ where everything must be fair and right.

For our rangatahi, there’s always so much energy, time and effort involved in playing these roles, and in convincing each other of the rightness of each individual’s position. And as they convince each other, the roles swap around. And suddenly the victim becomes the persecutor and the persecutor becomes the rescuer and the rescuer becomes the victim – it sure is the fodder of talk shows, soap operas and reality tv.

Parents have an important role

What your rangatahi needs the most, is for you to recognise their place in these roles, and to assist them to see the drama triangle for what it is: a drama triangle.

This means when they start explaining the latest scenario to you, you listen WITHOUT judgement. Simply reflect on what they’re telling you and ask a few questions to get a deeper understanding of all the backstories while you hold the space for them to download. All their hurt, anguish, heartache. Again, no judgement, just empathy. Validate how they’re feeling now and help them recognise their feelings and the thoughts that are driving these feelings. 

It sounds simple, but the reality is the opposite. When you first start doing this for your rangatahi it takes a lot of effort to not dive in with an opinion or a fix-it-up option. But keep going. This is deep, meaningful work that will vastly impact the way they show up in the world. 

But what if they don’t talk to me?

You may be reading this now and thinking, but they just don’t talk to me. In which case, it’s time to start examining your unnoticed role in their life – that of passing judgement. Chances are high your rangatahi is not sharing with you because they don’t want to hear what your judgements will be. Ouch. So your work is to start noticing where in your life are you judging others, and how  you show that. Is it in the way you talk about other people: your boss, your family members, the characters in a tv show? Do you indulge in gossip, backstabbing or blame? Everything you say and do has been captured and recorded by  your rangatahi over the years. So think about what they will have seen. 

And if you don’t like it, if it makes you shudder just a little, then it’s time for you to begin your own process of change. 

Teen Tangles take up so much energy in unproductive ways that it’s really worthwhile teaching your teens how to untangle themselves from the dramas. Over the next three weeks, these posts will be doing just that, so keep reading.