A Child's Tension: Who do I Choose?
There were times when I could sense the tension in my daughter; her struggle and belief that she had to choose between me or her dad. Who do I agree with? Whose side am I on? Who needs me more? These are questions no child should have to answer. Yet when their parents live separate lives and kids are required to move between two homes, they will sometimes feel they must make these kinds of tough choices.
Very simply put, our kids want to be connected to the people they love - just like we do. They want to be able to enjoy their relationships without any strings attached. However, children being shared by two separate households are often gripped with a perceived tension; that they must align with one or the other. Due to their immaturity and lack of relational skill, many children simply don't know how to navigate all the complex parental relationships that divorce and remarriage creates - dynamics that are challenging for many adults to manage as well. Stepfamily expert Ron Deal refers to this dilemma as a "Loyalty Conflict" in his book The Smart Stepfamily.
How Adults Influence Loyalty Conflicts
A child's sense of loyalty towards one parent or another can be amplified by the adults in some inadvertent ways. Here are just a few subtle ways we can unintentionally feed into our kids' Loyalty Conflict:
- Invading the other parent's time with excessive calls or text messages to the kids
- Casting blame on the other household for financial pressures or emotional pain - "Well, we could afford to go to the movies if your mom didn't have to have her support check."
- Making the children feel guilty for enjoying time in the other home - "Oh...glad you had fun at your dad's...I didn't do much of anything all weekend."
- Sharing inappropriate information with kids, such as your own personal and emotional struggles which can put them into a caretaking role.
- Judging or criticizing the other home's rules, routines or parenting styles in front of the children.
Underlying this can often be a parent's efforts to minimize the pain of their our own wounds. We feel justified when our kids align with us or appear to "love" us more. Sure, it can feel affirming, but it puts our kids in a very difficult position. Rather than simply enjoying their time with both parents, the kids are focused on making their parents feel better about themselves.
How can you help your children find healthy ways to manage their parental relationships and break free from the burden of Loyalty Conflicts?
First: This struggle for kids is often unavoidable, but you can reduce their tensions by not adding to them. Give kids the emotional safety and space they need to enjoy ALL their parental relationships by allowing them to share openly about enjoyable experiences in the other home. I know this can be difficult for parents to hear sometimes, but keep in mind that it's really good for kids to have positive relationships in both homes…without strings or alliances attached.
Next: Be intentional about sending your kids a clear message: "It's okay for you to love both your parents and enjoy spending time in both homes". Every chance you get, help your kids embrace this truth. In first grade my daughter was assigned to draw a picture of her home and family, which the teacher displayed on the wall. With its two houses, two dads and two moms, hers was very different than the other kids' artwork. We were faced with an opportunity to either show validation and support or allow an awkward moment to dictate our attitudes as other parents (and their kids) examined her drawing in comparison. Fortunately, we were all able to responded with encouragement to her honest expression of stepfamily life.
And Finally: Ask your kids how they feel and what they're thinking - especially when you sense they may be struggling with an allegiance. Take an approach of curiosity towards the child's reality of living in stepfamily dynamics. A few open-ended questions may lead to new insights and opportunities to help them process through their tensions. "Do you ever feel like you're in a tug-of-war between our house and the other house? Why do you think it feels that way sometimes? What can I do to make it easier for you?"
The bottom line is that kids want and need to be connected to everyone they love. We can have a positive impact as we help our kids to grow their parental relationships in healthy ways and let go of the tensions associated with parental allegiances.
QUESTION: When do you see your kids stuck in a Loyalty Conflict? Leave a comment below: