To understand the behavior of children in stepfamilies (including adult stepchildren), you must understand loyalty and the natural tug-of-war it creates.
Cameron’s mom has been asking him for a month now whether he wants to spend the majority of his summer vacation at 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.
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; it also it 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. Rather, it is likely that each word of sarcasm or discourteous behavior to their stepmother is actually a declaration of their loyalty to their biological mother.
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.
It 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 the biological mom; it 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 addition to these troublesome emotions, what is most problematic in the loyalty tug-of-war is the perceived burden to take care of someone. One 5-year-old innocently expressed his burden this way to his stepmother: “When I’m here with you and daddy, can I love you, and when I go to my mom’s house can I hate you?” The only way this little youngster could resolve his tug-of-war dilemma was to “love the one he was with” and then turn around and convey negative feelings about them when with the other.
I thought this perceptive stepmother’s reply was noble: “Yes, you can.” While her sense of fairness wanted to ask him to stand up for his affections toward her, she wisely knew that this was unlikely for a 5-year-old (and most 15-years-olds, for that matter). Instead she gave him permission, not so much to “hate” her, but to not be her caretaker.
Loving parents always want to find ways of relinquishing loyalty binds for children, but it seems impossible to do so. Even after the death of a parent when there isn’t a competition between homes, some children who are genuinely drawn into their stepparent still find themselves fighting to “keep dad alive” by defending his character, habits, or beliefs.
They may idealize a deceased parent and declare, “My mother would have understood how important this is to me and let me go to the dance!” Loyalty conflicts simply can’t be removed from a child’s heart. But they can be managed.
Loyalty is not the enemy
Parents and stepparents must understand that loyalty is not a troublemaker in their home. A child’s primary loyalty to their biological parents is as it should be. God has created within parents and children a strong blood-bond that is vital to the integrity of the family. This bond generates a much needed commitment to one another and motivates us to care for and nurture family members. Loyalty is good.
A loyalty tug-of-war does create tension within and between family members. But real problems develop when adults refuse to honor the loyalties of children or compete for them. For example, a stepparent who refuses to let children keep important photos of their first family on display in their bedroom is in essence asking the children to deny their loyalties and affections for their blood-relatives.
Likewise, a parent who caters to their child’s material desires or removes chores so that the child is more attracted to spending time at their household is competing with the other household for loyalty. This only exacerbates the ongoing loyalty dilemmas faced by the child, emboldens their selfishness, and empowers them to “play one house off the other.” The net result—the parental authority of both homes is weakened and children are forever caught in a no-win situation.
If a spirit of fear (the belief that love comes in finite amounts and therefore must be competed for) places children in the tug-of-war, a spirit of love will take children out of many of their loyalty battles. Fear dishonors the attachments of children; love honors them. Fear strives to keep children emotionally near for personal benefit (often an act of aggression toward an ex-spouse); love confidently gives them permission to love others knowing that in the end, love from the child will likely return in full bloom. Fear pulls harder on the tug-of-war rope while love releases it. This is how we help children find relief from the tug-of-war.
Loyalty conflicts can’t be completely eliminated, but they can be managed. Here’s what you can do:
Give children your permission to like, respect, and even love the many 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. This 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.
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. Talk about being an “added parent figure” in their life and 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.
Being aware of the loyalty tug-of-war that children/youth experience will help you to minister to them in important ways. You can:
- Use case studies in your teaching time of children “caught in the middle.”
- During special celebrations like Father’s Day have enough supplies for children to make two cards if they so desire. Never force them to make a card for their stepfather but let them know that to do so “shows honor without replacing the special place your dad has in your heart.”
- Don’t scold or make children feel guilty for not attending Bible class each week. This adds pressure to their visitation arrangement and 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 church participation.