Are Your Kids Stuck in a 'Parental Allegiance'?
"Who's side am I supposed to be on?"
"Who should I agree with…Mom or Dad?"
"Who needs me more?"
These are questions that many kids ask when they're moving back and forth between two separate homes. They are also questions we wish our kids didn't have to wrestle with. But many kids feel they must make these tough choices.
Stepfamily expert, Ron Deal says that kids are stuck in the dilemma of 'Parental Allegiance' when they feel the tension of having to align with one parent or the other — the perception of having to choose between Mom or Dad…
Stuck in the Middle
The simple truth is that 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. And as they move between two homes, they often feel stuck in the middle — unsure how to respond to the building tension they're experiencing.
Many children simply don't know how to navigate all the complex parental relationships that divorce and remarriage creates. (These dynamics are challenging for us as adults to manage too) And when kids are struggling, that's when Parental Allegiances can form.
My daughter, Annika was stuck in the middle when she was growing up. Her experience was a clear case of Parental Alienation. She just wanted to enjoy spending time in both homes, but her dad said and did things that communicated "strings" were attached to his love and acceptance. She felt she had to reject me in order to be loved by him. In the long-run, all this was detrimental to Annika's development and it caused much heart-break along the way.
All of this created a harsh reality for her. She had to carry the burden of appeasing her dad mixed with grief over the distance in her relationship with me. Ultimately she felt lost and struggled to know where she really fit in.
How Adults Influence Parental Allegiances
Annika's story is on the extreme end of the Parental Allegiance scale. Yet it illustrates how a child's sense of allegiance towards one parent or another can be inadvertently encouraged. Here are a few subtle ways that parents unintentionally create Parental Allegiances:
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 every month."
Making the children feel guilty for enjoying time in the other home — "Oh…glad you had fun at your dad's, I just sat here all by myself feeling bored most of the weekend."
Sharing inappropriate information with kids, such as over-sharing your own personal and emotional struggles that should be processed with another trusted adult.
Judging or criticizing the other homes rules, routines or parenting style in front of the children.
These are not things we consciously say or do, but what's underneath it all is often our way of minimizing the pain of our own wounds. Sometimes we feel justified when our kids seem to 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.
3 Ways to Ease Parental Allegiances
Dr. Richard Warshak, author of the book Divorce Poison makes this statement: "Children have the right to give and receive love from two parents". To help your kids experience this more, here's three things you can start doing today:
1. Minimize the Tension
For most kids feeling stuck between their two homes is unavoidable. But, you can minimize their tensions and free them from the burden by providing the emotional safety and space they need to enjoy ALL their parental relationships.
Allow your kids to share openly about enjoyable experiences in the other home. I know this can be difficult to hear sometimes, but keep in mind that it's good for your kids to have positive relationships in both homes. Be willing to put your own emotions aside and simply listen when your child wants to share what they've experienced with the other parent or step-parent.
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2. Send the Right Message
Be intentional and consistent 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, affirm this message to your kids — both verbally and through your actions and reactions.
In first grade my daughter was given an assignment to draw a picture of her home and family, which the teacher displayed on the wall for parents night. With its two houses, two dads and two moms — Annika's drawing was very different than the other kids' artwork.
Mike & I (and my Ex and his wife) had to make a choice — to show validation and support of her family expression OR allow an awkward moment to dictate our attitudes as other parents (and their kids) scrutinized her drawing in comparison. Fortunately, we were all able to respond with encouragement in that moment and celebrate her honest expression of stepfamily life.
Let your kids know it's okay for them to acknowledge and appreciate their "blended family tree"!
3. Coach Kids Through Their Emotions
When you sense that you child might be struggling with the tensions that come with a Parental Allegiance, ask how they're feeling. Take an approach of curiosity towards the child's reality of living in stepfamily dynamics.
A few open-ended questions like these may lead to new insight and opportunities to help them process through troubling emotions.
"Do you ever feel like you're in a tug-of-war between our home and your other home?"
"Why do you think it feels that way sometimes?"
"What might we do to make it easier for you?"
Your kids need their feelings to be affirmed and a safe space for sharing. When they experience this they'll feel comforted and see you as a confidante who understands them. This alone can help relieve much of their tension.
The bottom line is this: kids want and need to be connected to everyone they love and when they experience this they will thrive!
When you minimize their tension, consistently send the right message and coach them through the emotions they'll avoid staying stuck in Parental Allegiances.
QUESTION: What's one thing you can do — or one thing you can stop doing that will help your kids enjoy both of their homes more? Leave a comment below…