By Myra Strassler
We have all had the difficult and sad experience of seeing family or friends so much in love to be married only to grow apart within their relationship. What makes this circumstance even more difficult is when children are involved.
When a couple makes the choice to become parents, they acknowledge there are core responsibilities which accompany that choice. Among those core responsibilities is that the child comes first. The breakup of a marriage tests a parent’s ability to fulfill this promise when they themselves are in the midst of experiencing emotionally charged feelings.
Children will face many challenges as they watch their parents move away from one another. The very relationship that was the bedrock of their day-to-day life has broken apart. Parents whom the child loves are no longer one entity, united; they become individuals and this changes the nature of the parent-child relationship. This happens when children are put in the middle. Sometimes children are forced to take sides, sometimes they feel the need to do that on their own.
These children whose parents are going through a separation or divorce are at risk for loyalty conflicts also referred to as split loyalties. Loyalty conflicts are one of the most devastating effects of divorce on children. These conflicts lead to internal divisions that can cause severe emotional pain for kids. To illustrate what this is like for a child, therapist Brynn Cicippio compares a piece of blank paper to a child’s soul. She explains to parents that you can’t see what half comes from parent A or from parent B. By tearing the paper in half, down the middle, she demonstrates the analogy for split loyalty, tearing your child in half not knowing which piece to choose.
The age of the child can complicate these feelings. Therapist Karen Woodall notes that younger children are particularly vulnerable to loyalty conflicts because they:
- Don’t understand them
- Can’t articulate what they feel and need
- May feel over-responsible
- May not be able to communicate their feelings so that their caregivers can understand or empathize with them
So how can parents who are separated or divorcing help their children avoid or lessen loyalty conflicts? Therapists Brynn Cicippio and Terry Gaspard have some suggestions for this very difficult time:
- Make your children’s welfare your first priority. Confide in or vent to an adult who is a bit more removed from the situation. Sharing your feelings about the other parent to your child encourages loyalty conflicts.
- Don’t let your child hear you speak negatively about their other parent. This can be difficult for some, but an important point to follow. Hearing negative comments can have a detrimental impact on your child. If parental arguments occur with the child present, separate yourself from the conversation. Take the long view that a contentious moment with the child is present is not about who wins the argument. It is in your child’s best interest.
- Let your child know that the other parent is important to you. While you are now apart, there was a time there was love and it was why both parents wanted to have a family. Share with your child positive traits they get from their other parent.
- Encourage your child to have fun and spend time with the other parent. Don’t make them feel guilty for wanting to be with someone they love.
- Show you are interested in what your child does with the other parent. Try to behave just like you would if both parents were together sharing the child’s activities with them.
Parents need to utilize their parenting skills to provide security for their children’s changing world. Loyalty conflicts can challenge a child’s self image and self worth. Children in these circumstances need to have the support to create have a positive, cohesive image of themselves. With support from all sides, children can learn to overcome the burden of divorce and rebuild a trusting relationship with both parents as they navigate life in their post-divorce environment.
Divided Loyalties: The Unintended Plight of Children of Divorce by Terry Gaspard
Alliances and Loyalty-Kids and Divorced Parents by Vikki Stark M.S.W., M.F.T.
Children Caught in Loyalty Conflict after Divorce and Separation by Karen Woodall
Split Loyalties: What Damages Children Most in Divorce by Brynn Cicippio
Myra Strassler, LCSW-C is a Therapist at Jewish Community Services.
Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.