When parents are in conflict, their child may feel they have to pick a side.
Sometimes, a child may feel caught between their mother and father, and thus experience what is called a loyalty conflict.
What is a loyalty conflict?
A loyalty conflict is an uncomfortable and harmful feeling experienced by a child who is under the impression that they have to take sides or choose between adults who are important to them.
This can happen because their mother and father are having an argument or because one of them is denigrating the other parent’s attitudes, activities, choice of new partner, decisions, etc.
Criticism of the other parent may be very obvious at times, or more subtle at others, such as eye rolling when the child talks about a movie they watched with the other parent, or sighing loudly when the child says how happy they were to go out to a restaurant with them.
A loyalty conflict can undermine the development of the child’s self-esteem and cause them to become withdrawn. It can also lead to aggressive behaviour and foster the development of anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms.
When does a loyalty conflict occur?
Following separation of parents
The most common cause of loyalty conflict is separation of the parents. A child who is experiencing a loyalty conflict may feel very happy when they are with one of their parents, but begin to sulk when returning with the other parent. They may pretend they had a bad time to avoid hurting the feelings of the parent who was alone in their absence or who seems to be more vulnerable.
If the child thinks that their mother or father is suffering in their absence, they may feel guilty having a good time with the other parent and try to protect the parent who appears vulnerable when telling them about the time they spent with the other.
The child may also be wondering how to express love for one parent when the other describes this parent as a bad person or criticizes their actions. The child feels torn and is having a very difficult time.
The child must understand that they can love both parents and their stepfamilies.
Adapting to a parent’s new partner
A loyalty conflict can also occur when a parent has a new partner. For example, the child may feel that their father does not like or distrusts their mother’s new partner.
To remain loyal to their father, the child may avoid mentioning the good times spent with their mother’s new partner or describe situations in a negative light to please their father. The child may also make up stories according to what they believe their parent wants to hear.
When arguments occur
A child can also experience a loyalty conflict if their parents are still together, but argue a lot.
This type of conflict can also occur if the parents have arguments with other adults that are important to the child , such as their grandparents or teacher.
How to recognize a loyalty conflict
Loyalty conflicts rarely occur before the age of 4. Before this age, children are too young to feel or express such conflict.
For example, a child who is experiencing a loyalty conflict may:
- Feel anxious, aggressive, and become withdrawn;
- Cry, throw temper tantrums, have headaches and tummy aches, or vomit before leaving one parent to go with the other. These symptoms often disappear shortly after arriving at the other parent’s place. Should these symptoms persist, it is important that the entire family get help, not just the child;
- Adopt a different behaviour with each parent and with stepparents;
- Avoid talking about one of their parents or stepparents because they know it makes the other parent uncomfortable;
- Feel less enthusiastic about seeing one of their parents, or may not even want to see them at all.
How to prevent loyalty conflicts
- Do not involve your child in parental conflicts. Generally speaking, loyalty conflicts result from significant tensions between adults who are important to the child. Try to maintain a cordial and polite relationship with the other parent as much as possible. Keep your children out of adult conflicts and do not speak ill of your ex-partner or step-relative in front of your child.
- Tell your child that it is okay to feel comfortable with both their parents and their stepparents. Your child needs you to give them clear permission to have a good time with their other parent or their stepparents. Even if it is difficult, make sure all of your gestures (tone, smile, etc.) show that you are glad they had a good time. Avoid asking a lot of questions to your child when they return from the other parent’s place.
- Reassure your child. Tell them you are happy that the other parent and their partner are important to them. It is important that your child knows and feels that they will not lose the affection of one parent by remaining loyal to the other. This will allow the child to maintain the bond of affection they need with each parent.
- Encourage your child to spend time with their other parent. Tell them you know they’ll have a great time. You have to prepare yourself and your child to be away from each other. Do not tell them you are sad to see them leave, how you’ll miss them while they’re away, or your concerns about what goes on while they are at their other parent’s place. Do not hesitate to contact the other parent to discuss your concerns. If communication with the other parent is difficult, consult with a family mediator.
- Decide for your child. It is preferable not to let your child decide when they visit the other parent or which parent they want to live with, for example, as this would force them to choose between two people they love, even if that is not your intention. This responsibility lies with both parents. A young child does not have the maturity to make such decisions, and even in the case of older children, this is an adult’s responsibility.
- Validate with the other parent the information reported by your child, either by phone, email or in person, while your child is not present, before drawing conclusions. If the parents are in conflict and there is no communication between them, the child is then more likely to make up stories that are untrue.
Sometimes, a loyalty conflict evolves into parental alienation. This occurs when a parent tries to push away the other parent by always badmouthing them in front of the child, by limiting visits, or by organizing interesting activities that conflict with the custody time of the other parent, which encourages the child not to visit that parent. It can also consist of voluntarily omitting to share important information with the other parent (e.g. medical appointments, daycare follow-ups, sports activities). When this happens, the child may no longer want to see the other parent and reject them completely.
This is a dangerous situation that undermines the development of the child, who will be deprived of one of their parents. It is therefore strongly recommended to consult a professional (mediator, social worker, or psychologist) who could help you and a lawyer who will inform you of your rights and obligations in such a case.
Things to keep in mind
Even if you are in conflict, do not speak ill of the other parent in front of your child. Your child loves you both.
Your attitude and words should show that you want your child to have a good relationship with the other parent.
It is up to the adults to decide on the custody of the child, as well as the frequency and schedule of visits.
Scientific review: Lorraine Filion, social worker and family mediator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: March 2022
Useful links and resources
Note: Hyperlinks to other sites are not updated on a continuous basis. Thus, some links may not work. In such case, use the search tools to find specific information.
PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY OF CANADA. Because life goes on… helping children and youth live with separation and divorce. 2016. www.canada.ca
CARREFOUR ALIÉNATION PARENTALE QUÉBEC. alienationparentale.ca
CLOUTIER, Richard, et al. Les parents se séparent. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, coll. “Parlons Parents,” 2018, 296 p.
COUTANCEAU, Roland and Jocelyne DAHAN. Conflits de loyauté : accompagner les enfants pris au piège des loyautés familiales. Malakoff, Éditions Dunod, coll. “Enfances,” 2020, 224 p.
GODARD-WITTMER, Rebecca. “L’enfant piégé par le conflit de loyauté,” Journal des psychologues, Vol. 9, No. 322, 2014, pp. 47-51. www.cairn.info
JUSTICE QUÉBEC. JuridiQc. Keeping your child out of conflicts. juridiqc.gouv.qc.ca
JUSTICE QUÉBEC. Free information session on parenting after separation. www.justice.gouv.qc.ca
LE RUN, Jean-Louis. “Les séparations conflictuelles : du conflit parental au conflit de loyauté,” Enfances & Psy, Vol. 3, No. 56, 2012, pp. 57-69. www.cairn.info
POUSSIN, Gérard and Élisabeth MARTIN-LEBRUN. Les enfants du divorce. 2nd ed., Malakoff, Éditions Dunod, coll. “Enfances,” 2019.
PERREAULT, Mélanie and Marion ARBONA. Rosalie entre chien et chat. Dominique et compagnie, coll. “Dre Nadia, psychologue,” 2018, 40 p.