Children shouldn’t have to choose one parent over the other. Most parents would immediately agree with that sentiment. Oh, absolutely! I would never….
But children don’t feel the pressure and stress of loyalty conflict because a parent overtly and directly asks them to choose or asks them to agree with negative statements about Mom or Dad. Children feel loyalty conflicts because they know when Mom or Dad is angry or rejecting of the other parent and it feels scary. Children know when Mom or Dad needs the child to reassure the parent that the adult is important, special, and the better parent.
Children learn to choose one parent over the other because children can sense what parents need to hear and see in order for the parent to feel good about him or herself. If Mom or Dad feels good, like a good parent, then life feels good for the child.
Loyalty conflicts in children, and the adult manipulation of children’s emotional vulnerabilities, happen in all kinds of families because some parents exploit children to compensate for adult challenges. Some parents emotionally manipulate children only when under great stress and some parents do it because that is the way they learned to get their needs met in intimate family relationships.
Loyalty conflicts emerge because parents have unmet needs and unmet or incomplete developmental tasks from the way they were parented as children. These deficits, or undeveloped aspects, become more intense when children are brought into the life of a couple.
We refer to a family living together under the same roof as “intact,” meaning unbroken. We refer to families who have separated from one another to live in two homes as “broken,” meaning damaged.
This simplistic way of categorizing families is convenient, but misleading. It completely misses the fact that we all have unmet needs and incomplete developmental tasks from our childhood. How could we not? Life is hard. Unpredictable. Unfair. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. Parents do the best they can every single day with what they have to work with and with what life throws at them.
In other words, we are all “broken” in some way. We all have things to learn about being a better person, a more capable mother or father, a more positive human being. Hopefully, we will keep becoming more truly and completely who we are capable of being every single day of our lives.
Loyalty conflicts are complicated and there is not one solution. There is no magic word or sentence that you either say or don’t say.
Resolving loyalty conflicts is a process. That process often starts with reparenting ourselves as we parent our children. The process certainly requires a spirit of inquiry about self. In the next few days, we will continue to explore the issue of loyalty conflict. For our children, and for ourselves.