The Trauma of Split Loyalties

sad preteen boy unhappy about parents divorce hold man and woman paper drawing torn apart

Imagine how a child whose parents have divorced might feel if hearing parents toss jabs back and forth. Some children cry when these things are said. Some are startled, some frightened, others may be confused. Some shut down, withdraw. Some get angry and defend the other parent. What no one knows is exactly what is happening deep inside the child’s mind, what damage is being done as far as that child feeling safe with one or both parents. Harsh statements, especially if they are a regular occurrence, can be traumatizing because they evoke in a child what is called split loyalties.

Upset, frustrated little girl tired of parents fight

By definition, Google says that split loyalty is when “an individual is required to show loyalty to one deserving relationship at the cost of betraying or being disloyal to another deserving relationship.”

According to the Main Line Family And Law Center that features a Healthy Divorce Blog, “Children are damaged most in divorce from split loyalty.”

What’s happening for these kids every time they hear these comments? They are being placed in a position of split loyalty. Inherently, these parents are asking their children to reject half of themselves, as all kids are essentially half parent A and half parent B. This division results in internal conflict and turmoil. And the comments coming from either parent, day after day, year after year, only makes the divided trench deeper and deeper.

Another powerful quote of interest was this one: “Divorce is an agony of divided loyalties for children.”

Remember that the definition of trauma involves being caught in situations where you are powerless to escape and are in fear of being terribly hurt. For children, whose brains are still developing, there aren’t the inner resources to process things that are being said and done to help protect them from being overwhelmed. These terrifying situations create a moral dilemma as to which parent to align with. These situations turn on major alarms within the child’s brain, where powerful neurochemicals (brain hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline) are released. When traumas are chronic, and the fears are sustained, a child’s alarm system is overly activated, resulting in the child living in a state of persisting fear.

relationship difficulties, conflict. unhappy couple having argument at home

When episodes happen in private conversations with the child, they can be powerfully torn in trying to figure out if the other parent is some kind of bad person who they can’t trust. They can feel loyal to the parent who is speaking with them and simultaneously feel loyal to the parent who is being criticized. That leaves them confused, conflicted and alarmed. That leaves them with no one to help because the people they would naturally turn to are the very people causing the confusion, conflict and alarm.

An even more powerful experience of split loyalties happens when parents argue in front of children, criticizing and negating each other, whether generally or more specifically. That leaves the child in the untenable position in those moments to choose one parent over the other. Grandparents or other relatives can also set children up to be torn in their loyalties by speaking negatively to children about one parent or the other.

Upset child listening divorcing parents fight

So what can parents do to avoid putting their children in these positions of split loyalty? First and foremost, parents need to agree that they should never put their children in a position where they have to choose one parent over the other as being better, kinder, nicer, fairer, etc.

Along the same lines, parents should never ask a child to choose one of them over the other. It should never be a competition between parents, but rather a cooperative effort, despite the fact that people can disagree and need to work out compromises.

Parents should never discuss parenting practices in front of their children. When children are brought into these kinds of arguments, they have no idea what to do because they want to be able to love both parents. This is the dilemma in the situation that the one parent being negated or put down has to decide whether or not to defend himself/herself in front of the child and come on assertively or to back down in order to keep the situation as calm as possible. That is a set up for a lose-lose result. Children need to know that it is okay if there are different rules in each household.

If one parent understands and follows these recommendations and the other parent does not, it is important for the one parent to confront the other parent outside of the earshot of the child, stating firmly that it is critical not to put kids in the middle where their loyalties are split. If the other parent refuses, outside help is probably needed to allow the child/children to have a safe place to process their feelings, regain their power and address their fears.

Invitation to Reflect:

If you are a single parent, have you experienced moments where your child/children have been caught in split loyalties? In terms of the child’s perspectives, how fearful did this make the child? How torn were they? What resources did they have to process the experience in order to resolve some of their fear and pain.

If your ex-spouse puts your children in situations where they experienced split loyalties, are you able to have an adult conversation with him/her, bringing up how painful it was for the children to experience this?

If your ex-spouse is unwilling to have a conversation and come up with a healthy agreement, what options do you have to make sure your child/children can process their experience of being put in a position of split loyalty?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute