Why choosing sides is for sporting competitions and war, not parenting.
He said, “To this day, I still hate making decisions. I have to think about how it could affect my family and how it could look to one parent if I make this decision.”
This from a male, in his thirties, decades since the divorce. Things like how to spend holidays and where to sit at events when both parents are present are raising anxiety. Why?
I talked with a therapist recently who hit the nail on the head with only one question from me.
She has worked with both children and adults for several years. She’s experienced and wise, and I was seeking that experience and wisdom on your behalf.
I asked her if she had noticed any themes in her counseling work that repeated themselves with children of divorce, young or grown.
She didn’t even hesitate a beat with her answer. “Mixed loyalty issues,” she said. And I’ve been thinking about that word and my friend with decision issues ever since.
The dictionary describes it as “a strong feeling of support or allegiance.”
Things you might feel loyal toward: Your favorite pizza joint, a certain flavor of soda, the local football team, your country.
In an ideal world, obviously a child will never have to consider loyalty for something like one parent or the other.
In divorce? It’s a confusing mess of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Kids end up confused and questioning. The stress it causes on their brains is enormous. It’s no wonder so many of us, as children whose parents divorce, end up with severe anxiety.
I don’t just mean during the actual divorce. Neither did my therapist friend. These kind of loyalty issues last for decades. Like my friend paralyzed by decision making well into his thirties.
If children are being asked to choose sides and be loyal to one parent over the other (or oftentimes both parents are pushing for this same loyalty), it also puts the kids in quite the predicament.
If a parent is asking their child to choose a side, it consequently puts the child in charge of the parents well-being. Because it says to the child “I am not okay if you do not choose me.” As we’ve discussed before, a child is not made to be in charge of the parent. They are under our care. Not the other way around.
How to Approach Loyalty Issues
I want to present you with a few questions so you can think about your children and if they are struggling with loyalty issues like these.
What are the stories you are telling your kids about their other parent? Are they true?
How do you respond when your child brings up the other parent? Huffing and puffing? Eye rolling? Sarcasm? Ever wondered what that does to your child’s brain?
How much information does your child have about your marital split? Do they know too much? Too little?
What makes up their story? Observation? Your biases? Your spouse’s? A grandparent?
Is there room with you for your child to love both of you?
Is there room for your child to feel a sense of loyalty to both of you?
What I’m NOT saying: This isn’t hard. The other spouse didn’t hurt you deeply. The two of you shouldn’t have some issues between you due to hurt and pain.
Not a chance. The situation you are in is incredibly hard. If you are separated from someone you once loved, there probably was terrible hurt and pain for you. It makes perfect sense that there are still issues to be worked through.
Do your children have to choose sides?
Choosing sides is for sports, war, competition.
With all the gentleness in my heart, I have to say this:
It may feel like a warzone in divorce, but your children are not a part of it. What they really need is safety with each of you from the battles that rage – not to pick a side.
A friend of mine’s parents divorced when she was in college. Her mom divulged way too much information to her about her dad in the divorce. Instead of allowing her to be a daughter, she used her as a confidante and friend. My friend’s relationship with her dad was forever changed.
It’s been years since the divorce and recently she said to me, “You know who is really loving me and my kids well right now? My dad.” I couldn’t help but wonder if her dad had been loving her well for years, but her mom’s passed down anger got in the way for too long so she couldn’t see.
What’s sad is this: unfortunately, in her own untended hurt, her mom wanted her to choose her side. She wanted her daughter’s loyalty. She wanted her daughter to approve of her, to support her decision, to love her.
That, in and of itself, is not a terrible desire. We all want our children’s love and approval and time. However, in divorce, it can come at the expense of the other parent and that is what is not okay.
You know who can choose your side? Your best friend or your therapist. They can hear the ugly stories and tell you you made the right choice and support you all the way. They can walk with you through the pain and the healing and the rough patches as you go. They can handle your rants, hold your fears, and take the worst parts in stride.
Your child? They can’t. They didn’t choose this and they don’t need to choose sides either.
In my opinion, the only loyalty that needs to happen is your loyalty to their health and wellness time and time again.
Loyalty Issues Solution
Hands down, the best way for your kids to handle loyalty issues is simple: Stay on the same team as your spouse in the parenting game. Keep your goals in your mind – these precious souls you’re raising – as you make decisions, tell stories, and grow.
Our children are incredibly more perceptive than we often give them credit. They know if mom and dad are playing on the same or opposite teams when it comes to them.
Because of that, we’ll feature a blog soon on co-parenting and what it looks like to parent well from different homes.
Before I could respond to my therapist friend’s answer of “mixed loyalty issues” when we talked, she quickly shared with me that co-parenting was also one of the most common issues she’s heard in her office time and time again.
Maybe our kids will all be in therapy of their own as adults. They’ll have their own hardships and struggles as they grow and change throughout life. What I hope for my kids as well as yours is that we can minimize the damage from their childhood along the way.
As for us, we promise continued loyalty to our best work for you and your children as well.
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