Note: I first wrote about “The Loyalty Wars” in 2002 and posted the article on my site. It has been copied and use in several places so I have decided to post this article in the public section because it has expanded in many areas over the past 16 years. It has the same title because it is important. Here is the current version. I’m happy to let you know it is now Chapter 28 in my book. “Stepmoms on a Mission: A Compassionate Exploration to Find Answers Options and Hope.”
The Loyalty WarsWhen Stepkids Feel Afraid to Express Love of Their Stepmom
Almost every Stepmom I’ve met and worked with over the years started out wanting to have a great relationship with her new stepkids. It was all part of the happy family dream of a joyful new life with her partner. However, sometimes the friction between a Stepmom and her stepkids’ bio-mom creates a rift between an enthusiastic well-meaning Stepmom and her stepkids resulting in some stepchildren experiencing what I call “the loyalty wars.” This is a bit different from parental alienation, which is the result of one parent’s campaign against the other parent.
The loyalty wars arise when a bio-mom doesn’t want her children to have a positive, caring relationship with their Stepmom. The stepkids feel stress because they get the message from their bio-mom that she will be hurt or angry if they care about their Stepmom. From experience, they learn (and now fear) they will be punished if they express (or dare to feel) any affection for their Stepmom.
In addition, stepkids learn their bio-mom will give them more of the love and attention they crave from her when they openly talk about the details of—and their dislike for—their stepmother and any aspect of life at their father’s house. These children are taught that enjoying time with their Stepmom would make them disloyal to their bio-mom. So when they have a kind, loving Stepmom who wants to connect with them when they’re at dad’s house, this creates a real dilemma for the kids. Even though it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in the bio-mom’s house, the comments, actions and moods of your stepkids can indicate if they’re experiencing an internal loyalty war. If your stepkids don’t feel free to have a positive relationship (or happy times) with you or openly express love for you, they may treat you badly at times because it’s the only way they know how to relieve their fear and anxiety.
In the movie Stepmom, the young boy tries to prove his loyalty to his mother over his stepmother by saying, “I’ll hate her if you want me to, Mom.” He is willing to hate his stepmother—someone he obviously likes and cares for—just to please his bio-mom, and he says so in a sincere effort to prove his love for his mother and to help her feel better.
This is a painful and emotionally cruel circumstance for any stepchild. To make things even worse, it is well beyond a child’s ability to process, prevent or resolve. Until an adult becomes conscious of the situation and chooses to help them, these stepkids are going to have to help themselves in the only ways their child-brains understand—by lashing out, tap dancing or shutting down. The emotional pressure will cause them to behave in angry and hurtful ways. Ironically, their negative behavior is usually directed toward the ones who are not perpetuating the conflict. Stepkids are put under tremendous stress by any hard-to-prove and impossible-to-escape manipulation from their bio-mom to push her children away from their stepmother. It can be difficult to recognize what’s happening. And it is absolutely infuriating, completely unfair, heartbreaking to witness and even more difficult to accept that as stepmothers, we can’t stop this situation. Why not? Because we have no control over the behavior of our stepchildren’s bio-mom.
Not having the power to control a bio-mom’s behavior is a circumstance that stepmothers and their stepkids share. Recognizing this commonality with your stepkids and becoming conscious of the loyalty wars that impact all of you may help you have more compassion for them—and yourself. Thankfully, when you understand the loyalty power struggle a bio-mom may have established for her kids, you can do several things to reduce the negative impact on your stepkids. Understanding this situation can also free you from a lot of stress and help you take your stepkids’ actions less personally.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a stepmother and with the assumption that you’re an ever-more-conscious and dedicated stepmother yourself. I can’t speak to situations where the bio-dad is perpetuating a battle against thestepdad—I’ve never come across that situation. What I do know is that when a bio-mom is unwilling to behave (or at least perform) in a responsible way, accepting and talking positively (or at least civilly) to her children about their stepmother and life at dad’s, an often overlooked emotional loyalty war can break out in the hearts and minds of the stepkids. It doesn’t take two parties to create a disturbance of this magnitude. The Stepmom may be sincerely trying her best and have no idea about what’s going on. When the bio-mom denies her kids her blessing to have positive feelings and interactions with their Stepmom, this impedes their ability to enjoy a warm fulfilling stepchild-stepmother relationship. Sometimes the bio-mom reinforces this denial by threatening to withhold her love if she thinks her children care about their Stepmom. Kids may even sense this dynamic from their bio-mom without ever hearing a word spoken.
If your stepkids have a bio-mom who has been not-so-nice, openly uncooperative or outrightly adversarial toward you, you’re probably dealing with many issues at once, and this particular relationship dynamic may elude you—at least at first. The loyalty wars involve a complicated tangle of emotions and relationships so please cut yourself some slack and be very compassionate with yourself if you didn’t understand this before now.
The younger your stepkids are when you come into their lives, the more vulnerable they are to loyalty conflicts and guilty feelings because chances are good you’ve grown to know, like and even love each other over time. You may not be able to identify any loyalty-related internal conflicts in your stepkids until you know what to look for. The stress your stepkids feel is very difficult for them to overcome because biological mothers have an almost unbreakable emotional connection with, and invisible—yet palpable—power over their children. This truth can be a hard thing to accept. Yet once you accept it, you can begin to make changes in your actions that reduce your stepkids’ stress and help them get off the emotional battlefield.
It’s well known that the biological and energetic connection between mother and child is so strong that words aren’t even needed for a not-so-cooperative bio-mom to declare a loyalty war on her children’s stepmother. This places the children in an emotional tug-of-war with painful consequences, no matter what the kids may do or say. This is such a tragic and unfair situation. A bio-mom who requires her children to prove their love for her by not loving someone else is being unkind and selfish, with serious negative impact. This is noteworthy. Whether an uncooperative bio-mom uses words or not, she has ways to make her point very clear, even to very young kids. Children learn quickly that they pay a painful price for defying their bio-mom in any way. Stepchildren caught in the loyalty wars can’t take a stand for their rights to love anyone they want to, in this case their Stepmom, until they believe they’re strong enough to endure the feared or experienced wrath and potential shunning of their own mother—if they ever reach that point. In the meantime, children will often do whatever it takes to prove to their mother that they don’t care for their stepmother, both to get their mother’s loving attention and to avoid her punishments. If this issue extends to the bio-mom pressuring the children to push their father away too, then parental alienation issues and damages are now also in the works. Again, the loyalty war I’m going to focus on here is initiated by a bio-mom unwilling for her kids to have a loving connection with their Stepmom.
On the positive side, the bio-moms who process their feelings about divorce and their children’s stepmothers in healthy ways are honored and appreciated by Stepmoms on a Mission. Stepmothers whose stepchildren have civil or kind bio-moms are fortunate in immeasurable ways. There are plenty of thoughtful and responsible bio-moms out there. Many Stepmoms on a Mission are also divorced bio-moms whose own children have a stepmother. These bio-moms are committed to working through (and taking responsibility for) their feelings privately because they want their bio-kids to have as many loving adults in their lives as possible. All the kids with kind and civil bio-moms are very lucky indeed, and have won the parental lottery. It’s all chance since there’s very little, if anything, that both children and stepmothers can do about the attitude and actions of the bio-moms in their lives.
A Note about the Attitude of Bio-Moms
The ugly side of competition between women who “share” relationships with the same man or children is certainly a common dynamic that transcends stepfamily issues. However, you can save yourself a lot of hassle if you notice and accept the behaviors of your partner’s ex-spouse early on, resisting the urge to believe you can change her. If she is angry about the divorce, feels she has been wronged or acts determined to get revenge, then she has a full plate of stresses that may not make her an ideal candidate for being a parenting ally. This may be further compounded if she is worried about her financial security or about being a single parent.
Some bio-moms are OK with their kids having a terrific relationship with their dad and their Stepmom. Others are not, and they may do things to destroy their kids’ connection with their dad and/or Stepmom. Some bio-moms have an acceptable working relationship with their ex-spouse (your partner) until another woman comes into the picture, and then things change for the worse—a little or a lot. Sometimes a bio-mom is truly focused on the well-being of her children, doing everything she can to shield them from her upsetting emotions about you or the divorce because she wants to help them through their pain and the adjustments in their lives. However, sometimes a bio-mom, for whatever reasons, stops being cooperative and begins to act in hostile and not-so-cooperative ways when her ex-spouse (your partner) starts a new relationship with you. Although this may not be entirely shocking, it can be disappointing and noteworthy when it happens to you. I’m bringing this up because I want you to recall the attitude of your stepkids’ bio-mom when you first arrived on the scene as the new Stepmom—married or not. How did she react to your presence? Did her interactions with your partner change in any way? Did she make any statements or demands about your role in her kids’ lives? Was she willing to get along with you or not? How did she treat you?
What’s a Stepmom to Do—or Not to Do?
A common, understandable mistake many newbie stepmothers make (in their enthusiasm for a happy stepfamily) is thinking that any negative behaviors from a bio-mom will lessen over time or that the bio-mom can become kinder or more civil once she sees the Stepmom’s acts of kindness and respect. A bio-mom may indeed change her behavior over time, positively or negatively, but it’s not likely to be because of anything you do. There are exceptions, happily, but if there’s a loyalty war going on for your stepkids, chances are that your efforts to get along will only cause the bio-mom to be more uncooperative. I know this isn’t what you want to hear. So, what can you do to improve your situation?
Be willing to listen to and believe your partner when he tells you about his ex-spouse. Ask your partner to help you clearly recognize and fully understand the current attitude/behaviors of your stepkids’ bio-mom. Process your feelings about the reality you’ve inherited. Then turn your attention to something you can control. Work with your partner and start planning your life, making your choices and accepting the bio-mom’s behavior as an unchangeable fact of your stepfamily situation. From a conscious, awake state of mind as a talented, savvy, adult woman, you can work with the facts to contain any negative impact from the bio-mom and maintain your well-being, helping your stepkids in the process. Embracing your reality as early as possible will save you unfathomable stress and immeasurable energy, pain and anger. You can make all the respectful gestures you’d like and treat the bio-mom with kindness and compassion for her situation (and you should do this because it’s who you are) but this will not likely impact the actions of a bio-mom who is determined to not get along with you.
To take back your power and positively influence any loyalty-war situation you identify (and which you’ve inherited, not caused), you first have to recognize what’s happening. Once you do, you’ll probably feel a new wave of compassion for your stepkids no matter how badly they may have behaved toward you. You may also find that your heart opens up (even more) to your stepkids, especially if you’ve already grown to care for them.
You may surprise yourself by feeling a newfound compassion for the bio-mom when you stop to realize that the divorce is costing her time with her kids. If you have your own kids, this may be even easier to understand. If you’re a mother-by-marriage (a Stepmom without bio-kids of your own) you may want to choose to suspend any judgments and take a moment to imagine how you might feel if she had partial custody of your beloved pets. Oh my! This analogy usually helps Stepmoms without their own bio-kids have a bit more compassion for the actions of an uncooperative bio-mom.
Still, if you’re being ignored or treated unkindly, you will feel additional waves of anger at the unfairness of the situation and the negative impact on your life—even if you’re trying hard to be compassionate with her and with yourself. This is all completely understandable. Sometimes emotions aren’t singular or stand-alone. You can have compassion and resentment. You can be empathetic and furious. Do your best to make room for whatever emotions show themselves. For your own well-being and sanity, these intense feelings need to be honored and processed in healthy ways. Please help yourself by first doing this work in the emotional realm so you don’t get physically sick. For right now let’s focus on your stepkids and how you can help free them from this painful, emotional, unwinnable power struggle.
Stepkid’s Behaviors When Caught in a Loyalty War
1. Your stepkids may feel the need to compare anything you do or that happens at dad’s by commenting on how the same issue is handled by bio-mom or is experienced at their bio-mom’s. The stepchildren’s comparisons almost always make the bio-mom’s choices and possessions as good as—or better than—yours and dad’s so the kids can feel they’re being loyal to their bio-mom.
2. Your stepchild may suddenly express the need to call or text bio-mom and connect with her “right now” in the middle of a happy family moment at dad’s or with you. They may feel guilty when having so much fun and then suddenly realize they’re not thinking about their bio-mom in their moments of joy. The only thing they may know to do to reduce their guilt, anxiety or fear of getting in trouble is stop the fun, contact their bio-mom immediately and report to her what’s happening. Maybe she’ll be happy about it and let them continue—and maybe not. The young ones naturally desire their bio-mom’s approval for having fun. The tweens and teens may discover they can start lying to their bio-mom to save them from punishment and to allow them to enjoy their Stepmom and time at dad’s. But until they understand this survival tactic, they may reach out in the midst of a happy time to try to calm their anxiety.
When they interrupt a joyful time with you or at their dad’s, they may feel they’re saving themselves some future punishment from their bio-mom. Maybe they believe they’ll score some points and get extra attention or rewards from their bio-mom for trying to ruin—or at last stall—the happy moments with you and at dad’s. Sometimes the urge to call their bio-mom relieves the stress of being grilled for details when they go back to her house. As annoying as it is, not allowing the call or text can generate genuine fear and anxiety, especially in young, pre-teen stepkids.
Suggested response to their actions: Let them make the call or send the text. Do your best to be relaxed and casual about it—as if they were excusing themselves to go to the bathroom. When they return, chances are good they’ll be a bit subdued so you’re going to have to be wise, caring and creative about how to proceed. Making them wrong or taking your frustrations out on them because they tried to ease their internal pressure only creates more emotional shrapnel. As the adult, you will ideally process your feelings privately and in healthy ways out of your stepkids’ sight. You can interrupt the cycle and reduce the pain for you and your stepkids with your new awareness of what’s happening.
3. Your stepchildren may suddenly feel reluctant to be openly happy or to joyfully participate in fun activities they’ve previously enjoyed. Your stepkids may express some version of “My mom might not like it,” or “My mom said she wanted to be the first one to do this with me,” or “My mom told me doing this was stupid or wrong.” One stepchild, age 10, told her Stepmom she couldn’t participate in any future Christmas rituals because it upset her mom too much to think of her child doing those things without her. This is so sad for the child and her dad and Stepmom.
FYI: This behavior is actually an early form of martyrdom-in-training. It’s martyr-like for stepkids to deny themselves pleasure and fun while they are with their dad, just to prove their love and loyalty to the bio-mom. Remembering that your stepkids are likely trying to avoid being punished can make it easier to be compassionate and patient with them.