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:
For more information about the work of the Centre for Separated Families:
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.,
(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)