FamilyLife Blog

Stepfamilies: Managing Conflicted Loyalty

by | Mar 4, 2020 | Parenting, Stepfamily

Loyalty conflicts can’t be completely eliminated, but they can be managed. Here’s what we can do:

Biological Parents

Let’s give our children permission to like, respect, and even love the different members of their stepfamily. A mom, for example, might make statements that loosen the tug-of-war ropes like, “I’m so glad you enjoyed your time with your dad and stepmom this weekend. I think that’s great.”  

Ex-spouses should act in a civil manner toward one another. Criticism of the other parent, court battles, sarcasm, and an uncooperative spirit implicitly asks children to choose which parent they prefer or agree with. Choosing inflates and perpetuates the tug-of-war and your child’s inner battles.  

Encourage contact with the other home. Barring extreme circumstances, never add to a child’s guilt by limiting their availability. This usually only increases the child’s resentment of you.

Have a conversation about loyalty. Pick up a copy of my booklet, “Life In a Blender” designed for pre-teens and adolescents. It comes with a parent discussion guide that will coach you through a loyalty issue dialogue with your child.

Stepparents and Grandparents

Don’t try to “replace” biological parents (living or deceased). The more you try to force your way in, the more resistant children tend to become. Instead, talk about being an “added parent figure” in their life. Welcome hearing stories or memories about the child’s relationship with the other parent. Their relationship is not a threat to you.

Grandparents can support grandchildren by affirming the new couple and family. Constant references to the original family or showing partiality implies grandchildren should remain loyal only to the past.

Leaders, Teachers, Pastors

Being aware of the loyalty tug-of-war that children/youth experience will help you to care for them in important ways.

  • Use case studies in your teaching time, referring to children “caught in the middle.”
  • During special celebrations, have enough supplies for children to make two cards if they so desire. Never force them to make a card for their stepparent. However, do let them know that doing so “shows honour without replacing the special place your dad has in your heart.”  
  • Don’t scold or make children feel guilty for irregular attendance. This adds pressure to their visitation arrangement. It also reinforces the idea that one home is better than the other.  
  • Support their connections with both households.  
  • If one parent isn’t a member of your church, take the time to call or get to know them anyway.  
  • A positive relationship with you may help the child be more regular in their participation.  
© 2008 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.