Helping your child deal with loyalty issues
Loyalty issues for children after separation
Loyalty conflicts for children arise when closeness to one parent means being disloyal to the other. Children love both parents and being stuck in the middle can feel like an impossible situation for them to cope with.
It’s often hard for parents to spot loyalty conflicts - rarely will you hear a parent say, ‘who do you love most, me or your father?’ The kind of behaviour from a parent that causes children to have divided loyalties is often subtle and is usually unintended.
If you have a child who is upset at handovers, who seems unwilling to visit the other parent or maybe even refusing to go, they may be experiencing divided loyalties.
You may ask: “How can this be the reason for your child’s difficulties, if you know how important your child’s mum or dad is to them and you always encourage the relationship?”
The answer is that a child’s response is heavily influenced by the parents’ relationship with each other. These relationships can be complicated, especially in the early days.
These difficulties can spill into your relationship as parents in the following ways:
Competition – It is a wonderful feeling knowing that you mean the world to your child. Competing against the other parent to prove that you’re the ‘best’ parent can protect you from feeling sad or hurt. But actively seeking your child’s love at the expense of the other parent is confusing and worrying for children.
Anger – If you have been the children’s main carer, separation can be a challenge to your role. It is easy for you to feel that the children really do belong more to the main carer than the other parent. With that parent now wanting quality time with the children, it’s common to hear angry complaints on both sides.
Mum: ‘you were never that interested before, suddenly you want to be super dad. ’
Dad: ‘they’re my children too, why do I need your permission for everything?’
Another source of anger is the wish to punish your ex, and threatening to take the children away is a good way of doing it. In your anger you may forget that this threat is terrifying for children. Expecting your children to share your anger is a huge burden for them.
Control - For the best possible reasons, some parents want to have a high degree of control over their children’s lives. They want the best for them and are confident they know what this is. After you’ve separated, you have to accept that when the children are with the other parent you are not in control. This can cause some parents anxiety. Although children are good at adapting to different house rules and parenting styles with each parent, if one parent criticises and undermines the other parent for not doing it ‘right’ it puts children in a difficult position.
Loss - The sense of loss about the family unit and missing the children, especially in the early days, can be hard to hide. Children are sensitive to their parent’s mood; even very young children can tell how mum and dad are feeling from their facial expression and tone of voice. Without realising it, a sad parent can make a child feel responsible for the parent’s sadness every time they leave them. Our advice on how to communicate with your ex will help.
Not accepting that your feelings are different from your children’s - Former partners reassess their ex in the light of their relationship breakdown; the assessment is often negative. If your ex has hurt and disappointed you, it is understandable for you to feel that they can’t be trusted, that they’re selfish, uncaring, irresponsible and generally not nice! It is important to remember that this assessment is about your ex as a partner not as a parent. Hard as it is, focus on their good points as a parent - these won’t have changed as a result of the separation. This will help you take care that your children’s feelings towards the other parent really are their feelings and not yours.
If you there are no obvious or convincing reasons why your child might be experiencing difficulties, he or she may be experiencing loyalty conflicts. Giving your children the permission to be as close to the other parent as they are to you is one of the most valuable gifts you can offer them. As the examples above show, it’s not enough for parents to say to children that they want them to spend time with the other parent – they have to watch out for the hidden messages that children pick up on.
Talking this through with a friend or a counsellor could help you to find new ways of adapting to being a single parent. If you and your ex are struggling to agree the arrangements for your children, a family mediator would support you in deciding what’s best for them. Read our explanation of family mediation.
Our After Separation section offers some great advice and tips on children in the middle after separation.