Children Caught in Loyalty Conflict after Divorce or Separation

There are many children who, throughout the process of the divorce or separation of their parents, become caught in what is known as a loyalty conflict.1

 Loyalty conflicts occur when two people disagree with or dislike each other, and each expects a third person to support them over the other.

 All children whose whose parents are struggling with conflict are at risk of being placed into a loyalty conflict but some children are more at risk than others.2

Children who are being parented by one, extremely hurt and emotionally wounded parent, and who are living at distance from their other parent, are at a much higher risk than most.

Younger children (under the age of 11) in families where child focused nurturing is low (often also displaying other dysfunctional symptoms), are at risk of being forced to cope with the suffering caused by loyalty conflicts by –

  • numbing and/or distracting themselves by ignoring one parent
  • distancing from one of their parents emotionally and/or physically,
  • retreating into school work to avoid the issue
  • becoming angry, anxious or sometimes phobic towards a parent.

Unaware parents are apt to make the child the problem, rather than looking at whether their family and parenting is properly supporting a child. This is specially likely in troubled, divorcing, and step families.

Parents to whom a child is aligned (the parent who the child has chosen as their preferred parent), may also seek to blame the other parent for the child’s withdrawal.

In reality, the child has made an a terrible choice to reject one parent in order to feel safe with the other parent.

This is usually because the parent to whom the child is currently aligned, has placed pressure which has become intolerable upon the child, and has, either consciously or unconsciously, made it impossible for the child to enjoy relationships with both parents.

Children regret that choice deep inside and feel guilty and ashamed for having done so even though they may appear to be perfectly happy with that choice on the surface.

Children who have been forced into this situation will often be angry underneath however and will, as a way of coping with the confusion and fear, project that anger at the parent that they have ‘chosen’ to reject.

Loyalty conflicts are specially stressful for younger children because they –

(a) don’t understand them

(b) can’t articulate what they feel and need

(c) may feel over-responsible for them

(d) their caregivers may not understand or empathize with this.

Children need their parents to adopt a family-system awareness, guard them from adult conflicts, and learn how to avoid or dissolve loyalty and other disputes.

 The role of schools

Schools with pastoral care responsibility for children must seek to ensure that they are not adding to the position that the child is caught in by siding with the aligned parent and thereby adding to the burden that the child is carrying.

Children caught in loyalty conflicts can be assisted by schools adopting a policy of ensuring that both parents are always

  • acknowledged as important in a child’s life
  • welcomed into school at all times
  • kept informed about progress that a child is making at school
  • consulted as a matter of routine on all issues arising around a child
  • invited and welcomed to all open evenings
  • invited and welcomed to all events involving children at school such as plays, outings etc.
  • clear that the school will not take sides with one parent or the other in any dispute arising at home

Schools should adopt an open door policy so that both parents are welcomed into the school and both parents are seen by children to be included and considered important in children’s lives.

Children who are seen to be caught in loyalty conflicts due to their parent’s separation should never be asked to decide whether a parent can or cannot attend a school event or be present during parents evening.

Children who have become aligned with one parent against the other have been pushed into this position by the break down of the attachment hierarchy in their family. This has elevated them to a ‘parentified’3 position.

As such it is a psychologically damaging place for a child to be and schools should avoid escalating this by inviting the child to make further decisions about a parent attending school.

About the Family Separation Clinic

The Family Separation Clinic is part of the Centre for Separated Families, a national NGO working to support the whole family through separation and beyond. The Clinic is a specialist service, working to support parents in high conflict situations and families where a child has rejected a parent.

The Centre for Separated Families advises government on a wide range of issues concerned with children and divorce and delivers training throughout the early years and schools sector on family separation and children.

The Family Separation Clinic assists parents to develop strong and enduring relationships between children and both of their parents. This is based upon international research and best practice around supporting children and the importance of relationships between children and both of their parents after separation.

For more information about the work of the Family Separation Clinic:

www.familyseparationclinic.co.uk

For more information about the work of the Centre for Separated Families:

www.separatedfamilies.org.uk

1Ahrons 2007 – Wiley Journal online – Family Ties, long term implications for children of divorce

2Fidler, Bala et al – Children resisting post separation relationships with a parent – Oxford University Press 2012

3Minuchin et al. (1967) stated that in parentification, “the

parent relinquishes executive functions by delegation of

instrumental roles to a parental child or by total abandonment

of the family psychologically and/or physically” (p. 223).

They asserted that children who experience parentification

can perform a range of duties: from responding to emotional

needs of parent or siblings (including issues such as low

self-esteem) or acting as the peacemaker for the family (i.e.,

emotional parentification)

(This is one of a series of downloadable documents that can be used by parents who are facing rejection by a child after separation, you can download the pdf from the Centre for Separated Families website or the Family Separation Clinic website.  Other documents explaining the difficulties that children in separated families face, along with strategies to support them are in the process of being written and will be uploaded for use by anyone who needs to.  Please do not copy any material from these documents without acknowledging the source – Karen Woodall –  Director of the Centre for Separated Families)

 

18 Comments

  1. I agree with you that school ought to take a much more active role in ensuring that both parents are treated equally and your suggestions ought to be common sense. However, when dealing with a parent who is a determined alianator then the school is put in a difficult situation. Such a parent is quite prepared to alienate the child from the school and even remove the child, if the school does not support them. Doing what is best for the child will often lead to complaints from the parent and poor behaviour from the child and altogether for the school it is easier to just give in and have an easy life. I am not suggesting that this is right, but schools will need a lot of support from people who can help them deal with the resulting behaviour as well as their governing bodies and local councils, if they are going to be able to deal with these situations.

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  2. Thank you Karen for writing some clear guidlines for schools, backed up with intelligent evidence. I am sending this to the Head of my local High school where I am a member of the parents forum.

    I would like to add to this. If you feel yourself being alienated from your children or forgotten about as a parent by your children one of the best things you can do is become more involved with your school. By joining the parents forum I have been able to influence my school to such an extent that all separated parents are now able to log on to the school website and see their children registered at their address. If I don’t get the same treatment as my former partner I go straight to the Head where I get a fair hearing. Children have something called a “planner” which goes back and forth with your child. It contains information about your child’s homework and when the homework is completed it is supposed to be signed by a parent to endorse the work your child has done. Clearly if you are a non-resident parent you see none of this (because the planner will travel back and forth between school and resident parent) and before too long you can easily find yourself unaware of your child’s academic struggles and consequently less able to help. The other day I heard they were using the “planner” to invite parets to the parents forum.

    Clearly this is unacceptable.

    1. Because the non-resident parent will be unaware of the invite to the parents forum.
    2. The child is being used to invite the resident parent to the parents forum, a clear case of “Parentification”.

    I will make a mental note to approach my Head and see if we can get this changed. I would like to get something in writing to put in the school policy. “Best practice” perhaps.

    Can we get something out nationally to be adopted by all schools please Karen ?

    One more thing. High Schools have an achilles heal. They love to tell you how your child is becoming more responsible as they get older and are beginning to make important decisions for themselves. I find myself trying to convince the schools that it is parents who parent (verb). What children need is guidance and support, they don’t need the weight of the world upon their shoulders……….you can’t give them the choice of which parent they want to be involved in their education. That simply isn’t fair and it’s abusive toward the child.

    Kind regards

    Andy

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  3. As usual I found this information very useful and truthful, thanks Karen. Such is the problem of child loyalty, In regard to my own son towards his mother, he has found it intolerable to respond to my regular letters and emails, even to the point of not acknowledging my Xmas gift to him last year. I do not blame him for this, I have only sympathy and understanding for the great turmoil he must be going through in thinking that if he contacts me that he may run the risk of losing the only emotional support he has in his life, that of his mum. I am sure that my letters are not being forwarded to him and this too is not his falult. I have gotten to the point where I am considering giving up in writing to him, such is the feeling of hopelessness and pain in my heart, I have thought this wise. Also, to spare him that feeling of being under pressure in being disIoyal to his mother… am not sure about this though, I am confused as to what I shoud do, but I do want to spare him in some way? I’m not sure if I should leave you all with my last letter to him, because I thought I’d just say what is in my heart as a farewell to him, knowing that I’ve wanted to say it for so long. Well here It is, but who knows if he will get it, I doubt it. I have omitted my son’s name for legal reasons:

    “My Dear son E,

    I hope you are very happy, if you are then that makes me happy too. The last time I wrote to you was in early February (as you can see the copy below), I have also written many times before that too. I have had no reply to any of my emails, I asked if you got my Christmas present and if you liked it, and the other things I asked about also, but never mind dear son. Never think I will ever be angry with you or that I can ever blame you for the sad situation we both find ourselves in, I know it must be difficult for you to know what is truly going on, so I truly understand. I want to say now that I feel sure that you are not being given my emails at all, because you do not reply to them, nor do I think you are encouraged to write back to me, again this is not your fault. I have no faith at all that you will be even reading this, but nevertheless all I can do is live in hope that you will receive it somehow. I wish I could see your school reports or even some of your school work, but you have been cruelly cut out of my life completely. I know nothing about you, and many have made it that way, even the courts, why? Well I just don’t know. It seems strange and wrong to me what they have done to our loving relationship, I have done nothing to deserve this and you know this my son.

    What is happening is an injustice that we both have to deal with and it breaks my heart and saddens me greatly that others truly must know what is going on, but I can’t get them to believe me, they are only prepared to believe one person on the matter. For both of us this is sometimes called a “Catch 22 situation”, this is a saying that many people use to mean that whatever someone says or does that they can never win or be believed by others.

    As I have told you before I have kept all my letters and emails that I have sent to you, this I have done so that you will see them all when you get older. We have always been very close to each other and you know that for many years we spent all our time together, because of this I still believe that you love me, I want you to know that I love you very much too.

    I think you are old enough by now for you to be able to understand what is going on, so I will say this… I will never ever give up in trying to see you, I will do what I need to do so that we can see each other, please believe me. E… you need to know that we have been separated wrongly and unjustly for these last 4 and a half years, all based on things that are not true, I know that what I write here will be used against me, but things always have been and for the present time will continue to be.

    You should know that I love you with all the power I have in my soul, as a good father should, it is because of this that I have never given up in trying to get justice for us both, and I never shall, not until the day I die. I think that it would be wrong of me to give up on you and I believe you would think that way too, so I will carry on no matter what others say or do. Try and remember the things I taught you, that what you truly believe in you must fight for and never ever give up on, that no one can destroy your love for me, or my love for you as your father, not unless we let them.

    I know that you will not be reading this, but I know that one day you will get the chance to read everything. If by some miracle you do read this, then know that I am always here for you, and you will always be with me wherever I go. We will meet again and this is all I want, I do not want to hurt anyone nor should anyone think that way, but it is our human right to be together as a father and son should be. I know by now that you are not being given my letters or my emails this is why I have written in this way to be straight and honest with you, forgive me my son for this, but I feel I have to say what I know to be the truth after all this time, there is nothing else I can do.

    Try and find a way to contact me E… I long to hear about you my dear son. I love you and miss you so very much, I am not able to say how much here. Be good for me as you always are, bye!

    You Dad. Xxxx. “

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  4. Paul. Your letter is really moving and heartfelt. Emotionally I have been close to where you are, but now four years down the line things are much better. (But never perfect). Your letter sounds like one of despair and desperation as if you are about to throw in the towel. (It sounds like you are going through one of those epic court struggles).
    If your son reads this how do you think he will feel?
    Fortunately due to our improved understanding of what is happening in these situations ther are ways in which we can make improvements even in what may seem like the darktimes. What your son needs is reassurance.Tou have to find out as much as you can about your child’s life working with the adults he comes in to contact with. Go to school and tell them who you are and make favourable connections. Offer your help. If you get glimpses of your childs progress celebrate this and put it in your e mail to him. If you have any interesting anecdotes about your childhood he would love to hear them. If you get on friendly terms with the school this could be a means of communication for you. (I remember standing in front of my child’s class talking about my travels because I put myself forward. (this was a nervous moment for me but I’m glad I did it for all sorts of positive reasons).
    If you would like to contact me I would be pleased to help you find weays of rekindling your relationship. Whatever the courts/law says it won’t give you guidance on how to maintain your relationship in difficult circumstances. That comes from you.

    Kind regards

    Andy

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    1. I much appreciate your thoughtfullness and concern Andy. It would be hard for you to understand where I am in regard to me trying to keep in contact my son, but then again, with respect, why should you? I would love to go to his school, as you suggest, and to be a part of his education in any way I can, but herein lies the rub. If I went anywhere near his school my ex would make it as difficult as she could for me, even calling the police and then she would probably get another Oscar for her acting role. I do not have PR, and the courts refuse to give it to me because they believe that me having it would put so much stress on my ex in having to deal with me over issues to do with it… in other words it would affect her parenting of our son to her detriment, which in turn will affect him… and of course we all know that the welfare of the child is paramount don’t we? (Hint of sarcasm) When I say in my letter to Elliott “That I have been cut out out of his life” I mean it literally, in THE complete sense! If I could find a way to maintain a relationship with my son or find out one snippet of information about his life, believe me I’d be there in a flash. As you say “it comes from me” but one can do nothing with nothing and I know nothing about him, ZIP! Be assured Andy that I love my boy with all my heart, after all I was his main carer from birth, but If you can tell me HOW I can get to him, or contact him, please I will truly listen. I will accept all help from whomever. Yes I’d like some help, but I will never give up on my son, NO MATTER WHAT!

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  5. Hi Paul. You are right I do not know where you are with regard to gaining a proper relationship with your son. I only know what I read here. I can tell you are very angry and frustrated, but having been in this situation myself, I feel confident you will convert this justifiable sense of injustice into a positive reaction that will improve your situation. At the moment you are giving your ex great credibility for her opinion and poor behaviour. Let me tell you your opinion is just as valid as hers. You are unlikely to change her opinion by pleading with her or complaining or making demands of her, it is not human nature for any of us to do so. She will only change if you change what you are doing. Your goal would better be served by focusing on your child’s life and ignoring the aberrant behaviour of your ex. I find it astonishing that you know so little about your son. if you were there from birth you must know a lot about him. I am puzzled as to why you fear your ex when trying to contact the school. You should make the school your first port of call. It is not you that is behaving badly it is your ex.
    If you feel i can help you can contact me any time.

    I had a struggle to get recognition too. I would be glad to help you if you think i can. I don’t know if it would be possible to leave my e mail address here.

    Kind regards

    Andy

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  6. One of the things I stress to newly separated dads is the importance of making independent relationships with their children’s schools, doctors, sports coaches etc so that imformation and feedback can flow directly to them not via their children’s mother.
    Sadly protection orders are used as weapons in the separation process way too often and this will make the above steps much harder – but not impossible. Here in NZ when a protection order is first put in place it automatically applies to the children too.

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  7. I only wish that schools were made up of individuals part of whose training was a course on parental alienation.

    Just about every separated dad I know has conveniently been labeled controlling so as to minimize his time with the kids. In their attempt to control everything to do with the kids, mothers try also to control headmasters and teachers by telling them all sorts of lies about dad.

    So if I as a dad were to try to enlighten the teachers by referring them to the above article, I have no doubt that the said teachers would see this as incontrovertible proof of my so-called controlling behavior.

    It’s all quite amusing to me, but also very sad.

    I know that teachers cannot be made to read this sort of thing, but it would still help immensely I think if some organization like the CSF produced a document that could be disseminated to teachers.

    Whether that would get all the governmental approvals necessary, I somehow doubt it. I guess that is why such a document has never been drafted. Because only the half-truths and distorted lies that are sanctioned are ever publicized. Nothing new there, all part of the miserable status quo.

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  8. I should have explained the background here.

    The issue of schools is an important one for me, because I have always felt bullied, scorned, belittled, kept in the dark about everything.

    I haven’t done anything to deserve this treatment. I’m not asking for kindness or extra time or special treatment, just a bit of decency. I recognize that teachers don’t have time to deal with crappy parents that make things difficult for them, but I’ve only ever tried to ease things. Yet I’m made to feel sub-human just for wanting to be involved.

    What happened in the world that made this treatment of fathers acceptable?

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  9. Hi Hector

    I have taken the following extract from your blog………

    “Yet I’m made to feel sub-human just for wanting to be involved. ”

    I get the impresion that you are depressed. You relaste an unhappy time at school yourself. This must make it personally difficult for you to approach the Teachers. Just remember the Teachers are just normal human beings with opinions of their own, just like you and me. You can make a huge impression if you manage to get involved. It is best to offer your services first and develop your relatiuonship gradually. As trust builds up you will find yourself more able to influence positively the way they go about their business. Karens blog is invaluable information that will improve everyone’s understanding of what is happening to our children and the way their parents are behaving. Teachers may need help in it’s interpretation and application and this is where, with your knowledge, you can help. Try to approach in a positive frame of mind as if you are providing something they want rather than the complaint you imagine you have. People always respond better to compliments. Good luck.

    Kind regards

    Andy

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  10. Although my grandchildren have a good relationship with their dad, I have noticed on several occasions that they are ‘cagey’ with information from their time with their mother. Its not that anyone asks or questions them, they sometimes say something themselves and then clam up. It is very strange as we are a very open family. My son places no restrictions on the children and they are free to talk about anything that they do or hear when they are with my son.

    Its as though they have been specifically told not to divulge any information to their dad about their daily lives. Twice in the last fortnight the children have been kept off school and their mum has not mentioned this to their dad. Apparently mum was unable to drive but she did not contact my son who would have been more than happy to take the children to school and return them after school.

    My personal opinion for what it’s worth, is that this must put the children under a good deal of pressure as they try to fit into both households. I can’t see how this can be in the best interests of the children when the parents are sharing care. Its hard to do anything about it in case the situation is made worse.

    I have always believed in shared care but it works best when both parents are fully committed to the welfare and best interests of the children.

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    1. I remember much the same – the children are not prepared to talk about what happens at mum’s. Not that they were asked to or in any other way put under pressure to talk or not talk – it was just clear that they did not want to. Over the years I have come to the conclussion that it results from three things
      1) sometimes they are definately told not to tell dad
      2) they live in two different worlds i.e. shared care is not working and the only way to survive is in their minds to segregate what belongs in mum’s world and what belongs in dad’s. By sharing experiences in mum’s world with dad they mix up the worlds and they cannot do that.
      3) sharing experiences in dad’s world with mum results in a negative reaction, so surely dad feels the same even if he does not say so.
      I have no idea how to help these children, but as you say it is certainly not good for them.

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      1. This area is certainely one that needs more work and more support services. Having been a step mum to two transition children I can testify to the way in which they segregate their two worlds, never able to integrate them. The issue with shared parenting and the movement of children between homes is that the children will adapt well of both homes communicate effectively and things from each world (as well as children) can be taken back and forth across what we call at CSF the Transition Bridge. If parents are able to accompany their children on that bridge then the children feel that the two aspects of their worlds are integrated, if not then the two remain split and the children are alone on the Transition Bridge. There is very little that you can do if one of the parents has the determination that they will be the main parent, they will be where ‘home’ is because they will ensure, through deliberate means that the children are aligned to that side of the bridge. Each time the child sets out on the bridge from the aligned parents side, they know they are betraying their ‘home’ side. And so they use every psychological means in the book to keep themselves safe – they have to – they are children and they don’t know, when the world has gone nuclear around them, whether they are safe in the world or not. All they do know is that they have to keep the parent who is causing the most negative emotional energy happy. What you can do, if you have children in transition and they are struggling because of pressure on the other side is accept that they are not going to be able to adapt as some children do. Accept that they have to, for now, keep themselves safe. Allow them to keep the two worlds private if at the other side of the transition bridge you know they are being pressured. But gently, wherever you can, help them to know that you know that they are under pressure. Show them that you understand what being in transition under that kind of pressure feels like. A word here and there…’I know how hard it must be for you sometimes…’ can make all the difference to those children. When you are parenting children in transition you need to have extremely high empathic skills, extreme patience and you have to accept that you cannot parent in the way that you would have wished to once over. Grieving and accepting that loss as well as skilling yourself and readying for the years that you will be a transition parent are the three things that I would advise. I am now way down the line of transition parenting, our grown up children come and go, but the two who transitioned will always and forever keep two worlds apart. As my step son said to me during one conversation ‘dad came round to mums and it was just too weird.’ I will write more about empathic work with transition children soon. K

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      2. Thanks for the reply Karen, We too found that they do adapt well to both homes and we always used to emphasise whenever something came up that mum does things this way and we do them that way, it is not right or wrong just different ways. However, the problems start when indirect contact comes into the mix – mobile phones, email, internet chat etc. At that point the children can no longer transition because they are constantly reminded of the other world.

        The segregation of the two worlds also goes wider than just experiences that are not shared, it very much includes physical things. The terror that clothes belonging to mum’s house might be forgotten at dad’s, hence they would always immediately take them off and pack them ready to take back. Mostly of course they would wear something that would not need bringing back such as clothes that were too small, as mum told them and me, she could not have clothes going to dad’s house!

        Likewise the suggestion that they might want to bring their pocket money from dad’s house back to mum’s was turned down, better to not spend it than take it to mum’s. I do not think you can break these barriers when one parent insist on them, only do your very best not to add bricks to the wall. However, often it is a question of which action adds the fewest bricks to that wall and it is not always easy to predict.

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    2. I have found your reply extremely helpful Karen. My son has concerns about his eldest son at the moment. Again this morning, he complained of feeling sick but he had no problems eating his breakfast. My son took him into school and left my phone number with the office.

      I will print it off for him as I am sure he will find it useful.

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  11. Hi Karen

    A good place to start might be the book by Warshak, Divorce Poison. I remember one of the techniques he describes as “third party”. You can describe situations in which people disagree and that’s ok. It could be your very own invented situation where Mickey Mouse has a different opinion from Minnie Mouse. Essentially the children need to know that you understand their situation and you empathise with it. It’s similar to when you have a problem and you need someone who appears to underrstand and sympathise wothit. It naturally brings relief.
    Kind regards

    andy the same as when you

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