To understand the behaviour of children in stepfamilies (including adult stepchildren), we must understand loyalty and the natural tug-of-war it creates. Step-children often feel caught between their biological parents.
Cameron’s mom has been asking him for a month, where he wants to spend the majority of his summer vacation. His options are his dad’s house or with his mom and stepdad, but she can’t seem to get a definite answer out of him. He talks in circles about where he’d like to be but won’t give her an answer. She’s growing very impatient with him.
Sisters Kelly and Katie are generally rude to their stepmother of three years, Tonya. Everyone who knows the girls describe them as polite and considerate, but Tonya doesn’t experience that side of them. Tonya is frustrated and growing weary of trying to win their affections.
The Loyalty Tug
Loyalty refers to our devotion and attachment to the people we love. It refers to where we choose to put our allegiances. In stepfamilies, people generally place their first loyalty with their biological family members. Cameron feels caught between his biological parents and wants to spend his summer vacation with both of them. But to choose one means he can’t be with the other. Loyalty also means jeopardizing the feelings of one parent, should he choose to be with the other. For Cameron, choosing is a no-win tug-of-war.
It could be that Kelly and Katie haven’t been properly taught to respect authority and their rudeness is a natural outgrowth of poor parenting. However, the fact that they are generally polite toward adults indicates something else is at play. It’s more likely that each word of sarcasm or discourteous behavior to their stepmother is actually a declaration of their loyalty to their biological mother.
Understanding the loyalty tug also helps adults understand why a child who often refers to their stepmother as “mommy” suddenly switches to “Ms. Julie” after coming home from a weekend visit to mom’s house. The change in label symbolizes the child’s inner desire to tighten their connection (loyalty) to their biological mom. This change also reveals the sadness children often feel when transitioning from one home to another.
The Feelings of Loyalty
Common emotions associated with the loyalty tug-of-war include:
- Being protective or defensive of one parent, while spending time with the other;
- Feeling guilty for enjoying a stepparent, knowing their biological parent feels left out;
- Feeling sorrowful when embracing a new family because it means letting go of a deceased parent.
In times of stress and sadness, children and adults alike tend to tighten their biological loyalties. That’s why a generally warm and amenable child might become distant or cold toward a stepparent after a last-minute change of plans prevents the child from visitation with the other parent’s household.
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© 2008 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.