Whatever their age, children find the break up or separation of their parents to be a difficult time emotionally. Many aspects of their lives will have changed, whether it’s where they live, seeing one parent much less or emotional difficulties brought about by upheaval. The speed at which they adapt and recover will very much depend on how the situation is dealt with.
Children can be remarkably resilient and adapt very well to new situations, but as parents who have decided to split up, you need to make this transition as easy for the children as possible. Subtle emotional issues like loyalty confusion might not be easy to predict or to spot particularly if you, as a parent, are very focused on your own feelings of loss from the separation.
What can Cause Loyalty Conflict?
Children who are being parented by one, extremely emotionally wounded parent, and who do not see their other parent very often, are at a much higher risk than most of suffering with loyalty issues.
Very obvious ‘talking down’ about your ex-spouse to, or in front of your children is damaging. You may be feeling hurt or disappointed in your ex-partner, but relaying these feelings to your children is not helping them. They do not see their Dad or Mum in the same way that you now do, they still love them.
Sadly, I think many children do suffer as pawns in the backbiting that can ensue after a split, and are suddenly told that their Dad or Mum is useless, selfish and worse. Children in these situations then feel bad for loving that parent. A natural response in these children is also to blame themselves for the break up.
Thankfully some children don’t experience this in such an obvious way and maybe don’t hear their parents openly arguing or criticising each other. But children do pick up on subtle things, very much more than you would think. So even if you aren’t deliberately speaking badly about your ex-partner, a feeling or a look can be picked up on just as easily. As an adult, feeling hurt by the loss of the family being together might be hard to hide from your children but the resulting effect is that the children feel responsible for your sadness.
What are the Signs of Loyalty Issues?
The signs can be difficulties or behavioural problems at hand over times. Perhaps they even try to refuse to go to see the other parent. They don’t want to see you saddened by them going and they most certainly would not come back and show they had a good time, even if they had.
Putting this kind of burden on your children is very damaging and although it might make you feel temporarily better that they ‘appear’ to want to stay with you and not have a good time with the other parent, the long term effects of this will not be as pleasing. They will be hiding and harbouring very confused feelings about loyalty.
Children in this situation might even adopt a strategy where they deliberately say bad things about the other parent to you as they feel it will please you, this only perpetuates their own feelings of confusion and hurt.
If a child is in a family where there is little or no emotional support, they may display some of the following traits where they are forced to cope with their feelings of confusion and hurt by:
- ignoring one parent completely
- distancing from one of their parents emotionally and/or physically
- retreating into school work to avoid the issue
- becoming angry, anxious or even phobic towards a parent
One of the saddest things for these children is that they have been forced into these situations knowingly or often unknowingly by a parent and a self-preservation instinct will kick in. If they choose not to see or speak to one parent they regret this choice deep inside and will feel guilty and ashamed of it. They may appear to be completely happy with their decision on the surface. Often then angry underneath, they will cope with this fear and confusion by directing more anger at the parent they have rejected.
How can I Prevent my Children from Suffering with Loyalty Issues?
The following suggestions will only work if both parents are on board with the idea and can communicate normally. With each other and their children.
- Each parent must support the other’s equal parental role.
- Parents must not undermine the former partner’s authority with the children.
- Parents must not fight in front of the children or within earshot.
- They must not involve the kids in parental conflicts.
- Make it possible for the children to enjoy relationships with both parents. Actively be encouraging and happy to hear of activities with the other parent.
- Parents must not make their children choose between them. Instead they should encourage them to be close to both parents at the same time.
- Parents should encourage others within the family circle to take a neutral stance regarding the separation. This includes grandparents, teachers and other significant adults. Children need to be able to receive support from these people without them taking sides or blaming one parent or the other.
How can we help?
Conflicts between parents and the involvement of the children can be resolved with a third party mediator, a person who can give unbiased advice on compromises and allow everyone involved to be heard. If you would like to discuss mediation after separation or mediation especially for children then please call us on 0117 924 3880.