Children have a basic instinct: to survive. It is the reason for attachment, it is the reason for crying, and it is the reason why divided loyalties can happen. The survival instinct endows children with the innate ability to “read” their parents and, as a result, they are reading us constantly – our words and vocal intonations, but perhaps more importantly, our every move, the smallest facial expression, sigh, or teary eye.
Parents also have instincts: to protect and to survive through their children. Instincts drive behaviors both admirable and not so admirable. Admirably, we feed, clothe, shelter and educate. Not so admirably, we seek to be loved more, sought out more, depended on more, needed more. Job security may drive some of that, but at the heart of it is our narcissistic need to be needed, to be liked, to secure our position as “best parent” in the intimate family system.
“He loves me best!”
There are lots of ways to be the best parent: to be indispensably present and providing for every need while the other parent is overshadowed either by personality style or availability. When parenting is a popularity contest, there is a strong pull for validation from the children for recognition as the “better parent,” the more popular parent, the more fun parent.
Parents also may attempt to gain a child’s loyalty by negatively critiquing the other parent in front of the children with retorts, sarcasm, disagreement or, more subtly, by eye rolling, gestures, leaving the room, or just silence. “Spoiling” a child with gifts and costly outings falls into this same category. Children, with their survival instinct, notice even the tiniest of statements, the subtlest of judgments.
Conversely, when meeting a child’s needs is done consciously and in concert with the other parent, there is no sense of rivalry for affection, just practicality and job sharing.
Back to the Beginning
So, back to basic instincts. Survival is always unconsciously – and sometimes consciously – associated with power and control. Which parent has the power, which parent takes the best care of me, which parent can I manipulate more easily to get what I want? The answers to those questions may point to which parent has lobbied to be most popular for the sake of their own narcissistic needs. If the parental relationship is balanced and attachment to both parents is healthy, children recognize both parents as important to their survival.
How does parenting become a power struggle? Parents vie for control when their self-esteem relies on their children’s approval and favoritism. They may also use their children to exert control over the other parent.
This situation is most common in contentious divorce situations when children are informal-ly called upon to choose which parent is best. In these circumstances, children may refuse to see the other parent or wrongfully accuse the other parent of abuse, supporting the status quo power differential. Children reporting negatively to either or both parents about the other parent, called splitting, is also a common way to show loyalty to a parent. In the latter situation, the children have the control as both parents vie to be the “better parent.”
But parent alienation can also happen in an intact family when the couple relationship is unbalanced or dysfunctional. The quickest way to disenfranchise one parent is to ally with the children against him/her with private jokes, signals, and disrespecting that parent’s wishes and requests. Children perceive the disenfranchised parent as weaker and therefore not the one with whom to be loyal. Once this dynamic occurs, it is hard to regain balance. Sometimes, unfortunately, the targeted parent’s response may be reactive or explosive, reinforcing the negative label. The exception is the loyalty bind created when a parent chooses to assume the role of victim. The victim parent may exert an equally powerful pull on the child as the power parent, in this case to “take care of” the “poor, victimized” parent.
What to do? Stay conscious of your motives, your feelings, and your actions (see also my article, Conscious Parenting). Married or not, communicate with your partner/ex-partner respectfully and sincerely. Do not let anger, resentment, sadness, and disappointment go underground and emerge as subterfuge. And, above all, think of your children’s wellbeing first and foremost, with awareness that dividing their loyalties is not in their best interest. Children need a relationship with both parents with the way cleared for them to develop their own opinions for better or worse.
Post Script: This article does not refer to families where any form of abuse is present.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-509-9832.