If you’re co-parenting with an ex who engages in behaviors that induce loyalty conflicts, your child might become alienated and exhibit the eight behaviors described in this article. It’s important for you to develop a sense of the ways in which your ex may be turning your child against you, and the signs that your child is being affected.

By Amy Baker (Ph.D.) and Paul Fine (LCSW)

Some children who are exposed to behaviors that may induce loyalty conflict can maintain a relationship with both parents. Unfortunately, not all children are resistant to parental pressure. Some get caught up in the loyalty conflict and align themselves with one parent, but this doesn’t happen overnight. If you keep an eye out for these signs and behaviors, you can intervene while your child is only mildly alienated, rather than refusing to interact with you.

1. A Campaign of Denigration

An early sign that your child has been affected by a loyalty conflict is that he becomes unreasonably negative toward you. He behaves as if he’s entitled to inform you of your shortcomings, and he does so in a harsh manner. Your child will make statements that criticize you, rather than the things you do, and may deny any past positive experiences with you.
A campaign of denigration also includes your child’s willingness to broadcast his troubles with you. This unusual behavior runs counter to most children’s desire to keep family problems private and can be damaging to your child’s character formation. Rather than being taught how to work through problems and accept imperfections, she’s being taught that people are expendable.

2. Weak, Frivolous, or Absurd Reasons for Rejecting You

If your child is on a campaign of denigration, the rationale she gives for her anger may be out of proportion to the level of animosity she displays. Your ex may have encouraged your child to pounce on your errors, and it’s as if your child was waiting for something to happen so that she could respond with full-scale rejection.

Some children will allege abuse as their reason for not wanting to spend time with the other parent. Obviously, an abuse claim is not in and of itself a weak, frivolous, or absurd reason for rejection. However, in some cases, a claim is proven to be false, but the child continues to cite abuse as a reason for the animosity. Regardless, child protection services may prohibit contact between the child and the alleged perpetrator while the abuse claim is investigated, allowing the other parent unfettered access to the child.

3. Hero Worship vs. Baseless Contempt

Your child can simultaneously hold mixed feelings about her parents. However, if your child is involved in a loyalty conflict, she may have selectively lost this ability. All parents have potentially frustrating qualities, and even the most accommodating parents must set limits that cause resentment. If your child is involved in a loyalty conflict, however, she may demonstrate an idealized support for one parent. Such hero worship, combined with baseless contempt for the other parent, is unhealthy and unrealistic.

Lack of ambivalence represents a distortion of reality that could eventually interfere with your child’s ability to function in the real world. A child who assumes that anyone less than perfect should be rejected will grow up to have few friends and difficulty maintaining relationships.

4. The “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon

The hallmark of this phenomenon is not simply denial of the other parent’s influence when asked, but anticipation that someone might assume such an influence, spurring strenuous efforts to protect the favored parent from blame. Your child’s defense of your ex will be followed by rehearsed complaints that justify his rejection of you.

If your child is unduly influenced by your ex, his ability to think for himself is being compromised. All decisions are filtered through the needs and desires of his other parent. Your child is actually unnecessarily dependent on your ex, to the detriment of his ability to experience his own thoughts and feelings.

5. Absence of Guilt for Rejecting You

Your child may behave coldly towards you, with no qualms about treating you in this manner. Gratitude may be noticeably absent. Your authority as a parent has been denied and erased, and your child has been encouraged to act as if your feelings don’t exist. However, such behavior is a sign of a loyalty conflict only when it occurs in response to or in conjunction with exposure to behaviors that may induce a loyalty conflict, and in the absence of a legitimate reason.

Absence of concern for other people is likely to interfere with your child’s healthy development. A child who does not experience empathy will be unlikely to sustain meaningful, healthy relationships.

6. Reflexive Support for Your Ex in Parental Conflicts

It’s doubtful that a court-ordered parenting plan can cover every eventuality; there are always some gray areas. Toxic co-parents seem to possess a particular genius for focusing on those areas and making a case for why they should have the children during those times. No matter what the disagreement is about, children who are caught up in a loyalty conflict will side with their favored parent. The child “knows” that the favored parent is always right, and nothing the accused parent could show him would correct that misperception.

7. Borrowed Scenarios

If your child is caught up in a loyalty conflict, she may start to make accusations about you that use phrases borrowed from your ex. Your child’s words and tone of voice may appear strikingly reminiscent of your ex. Your child may make accusations that she can’t support, use words that she can’t define, or recall events (or versions of events) that never happened and that put you in a bad light.

8. Extension of Animosity to Your Friends and Family

If your child is experiencing a loyalty conflict, she may begin to resist spending time with you as well as your friends and family. Formerly beloved grandparents, aunts, and uncles may suddenly be avoided. Your child may deny ever having been close or having fun with them and may also denigrate them with cruel nicknames or comments.

This article has been adapted from Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine ©2014 New Harbinger Publications. www.newharbinger.com

Related Articles:

Parenting Mistake: Turning Children into Messengers and Spies

5 Ways to Keep Children of Divorce Out of Conflict

How Divorce Affects Young Children

Amy J. L. Baker (Ph.D.) is a national expert on children caught in loyalty conflicts. She conducts trainings for parents and legal and mental health professionals, and has written dozens of scholarly articles on parent-children relationships. Paul R. Fine is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and psychotherapist in practice at a community mental-health center in northern New Jersey.