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"Co-Parenting After Divorce? Avoid These 4 Loyalty Traps"

How to protect your kids from being caught in loyalty traps when you divorce.

Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D. - January 4, 2022 |Reviewed by Abigail Fagan


  • Loyalty traps are problematic roles that children assume or are unintentionally put into that require loyalty.

  • Four of these traps include when a child ends up acting like a spy, messenger, confidante, or ally for one parent.

  • Research shows that healthy relationships with both parents can help children thrive after a divorce.

I have never met parents who didn’t love their children. Parents almost always agree on one thing: they want their children to thrive. “We want what is best for them, what is in their best interest…” Parents may disagree about many things, or possibly everything, except this. They love their kids and hope that the children won’t suffer because of their parents’ divorce. However, there will unavoidably be fallout from a separation or divorce. It is almost inevitable there will be some negative effect, no matter how much the parents try to prevent it, or how old the children are. Infants and toddlers may not have the language to express their feelings, and adult children are not immune from their parents’ “gray divorce” just because they are over 18. It is a mistake to think that your children will not be changed as a result of your divorce. What can you and your co-parent do to protect your kids? First, acknowledge that as resilient as your children might appear, they often aren’t as resilient as they seem or as you wish they were. But there are things you can do to boost their resilience. Carla wanted to believe that her children would be happy for her when she herself was happier in a new relationship. This was an illusion, but she didn’t understand that until her kids sabotaged her new relationship. Daniel told me that his kids were strong and resilient and that he thought they would be “just fine.” He said, “They are more interested in their career, friends and activities than in our divorce. I’m not worried.” But he should have been worried. He watched in dismay as his son’s college grades dropped, and his daughter simply stopped talking to him. Second, four loyalty traps can powerfully undermine your children’s well-being. Often parents are not aware that the children are caught in one or more of these traps. Emmy told me that she began to be more vigilant when she learned about these traps. “I had no idea that this hurt my kids so much. Now that I am aware of it, I pay attention to what I say and do with them.” You can keep your children out of the traps if you are aware of them. How do you fall into one of these traps? Perhaps you are angry, bitter, or hurt by your ex. If you haven’t been able to work through your feelings, they can pave the way to a loyalty trap. Or maybe you believe that you are the aggrieved person in the divorce and deserve support from your children. You might see yourself and your children as the real victims of the divorce. Another possibility is that you want to show your children that you are the better parent, by covertly denigrating your ex. The Four Loyalty Traps Loyalty traps are the roles that children assume or you unintentionally put them in. Your children may be caught in any or all of these traps. These roles put the children in the middle of the divorce and into loyalty binds. You may not even be aware that you are putting the children in unhealthy roles. The good news is that when you are conscious of these traps, you can help your children disengage from them. They are: 1. Spy (“So does Daddy have a girlfriend?”) When you question your children about their time with their other parent, it often makes them uncomfortable. A child once told me, “I feel bad if I tell my mom how much fun I have at dad’s house. So, I tell her things like I don’t like his cooking or that I wish I was with her.” When you ask questions about what they do, whom they saw, and where they went, you are putting your child into the role of a spy. It is even worse when you ask about your ex’s dating or social life.

However, some children may want to share their experiences at their other parent’s home. This is not the same as when you question them. If they want to talk about it, pay attention to your responses and your body language. “I’m so glad you had fun at the pizza party!” is a great response, whereas “So, who else was at the pizza party?” is not. It is probing for information from your child. 2. Messenger (“Tell your mom she needs to get a job!”) Let’s face it, many co-parents want as little contact as possible with each other. You may feel the other parent is controlling or intrusive. Or you may be emotionally triggered by any direct communication with your ex. So, you ask your children to pass messages such as, “Tell your dad I’m picking you up early on Saturday so we can go to the birthday party.” Or, “Ask your mom if it’s okay if we go to Disneyland over the school break.” One of the worst is, “Tell your dad I still haven’t gotten the child support check he was supposed to drop off yesterday.” These are extreme examples to make the point. Don’t ask your kids to carry messages between their parents. Find other ways to communicate, perhaps through text messages, email, or a service such as “Our Family Wizard.” If necessary, consult with a co-parenting counselor to help you find ways to keep your children out of the loop. 3. Confidante (“Let me tell you why your dad left us….”) Children often become “adultified” during a divorce. This means they believe they must be more mature and attentive to their parent. When you tell your son, “You’re the man of the house now,” you are asking your child to grow up too quickly. Carol told me that her daughter kept questioning her about why they divorced. She finally told her of her ex’s sexual difficulties, but later realized that this was a mistake. But the words were out there and couldn’t be taken back. Chris told his children of his wife’s affair, which was upsetting to the children, and turned them against their mom. Parents are of course flooded with emotions during and after a divorce. This is normal, and you need to have good friends or a therapist that you can turn to. Turning to your child, even an adult child, is inappropriate because it puts your child in the position of taking care of you when you still need to be the parent. 4. Ally (“You need to support me and be on my side, now. Your mom doesn’t care about us anymore.”) You may recruit your child as your ally (or your child may think you need an ally) when you are hurt or angry at your ex. You may also want your child to see you as the better parent, even if this is not conscious. A teen, Rachel, once told me that she wanted to prove to her mom that she was on her side. To do this, she simply refused to see her father, despite court orders mandating shared parenting time. She developed anorexia and ultimately was hospitalized. She went to the judge and told her that if she was forced to see her father, she would starve herself to death. So, the judge rescinded the order, and Rachel did not see her father until she was an adult. In this sad situation, the mother felt she needed her daughter as her ally. Rachel unconsciously recognized this and knew that if she didn’t align herself with her mom that she would be rejected. She was willing to stake her life on it. Years later, father and daughter reconnected as Rachel worked through the trauma of the divorce in therapy. When children can have healthy relationships with each parent after a divorce, they will thrive. They need you to allow them, and even to encourage them to love both parents, even if you no longer love your ex. Freeing your children from these traps builds their resilience and reduces damage from the divorce. If you are aware of these four loyalty traps you can help prevent the damage of divorce for your children. No matter how angry you are, or how much you hate your ex, remind yourself that these four traps will ultimately harm your children. And, they may also backfire and damage your future relationship with your children.

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