Vicki is the single mother of Alex (12), Ryan (8) and Jessica (6). To make ends meet, she works two jobs—as a receptionist during the week and part-time catering on weekends. She has been divorced from Mike, a supervisor for a building contractor, for two years. Her relationship with Mike is strained at best, hostile at worst.
Mike gets the kids every other weekend and every Wednesday. The kids love going to Dad’s because there are “no rules.” They get to do pretty much whatever they want. Weekends are filled with video games, trips to the mall, pizza and movie outings. And candy. Lots and lots of candy. Wednesday nights are TV nights. The kids never do their homework on Wednesday nights because, after a long day, Mike wants to kick back; he doesn’t want to have to deal with questions about homework. Vicki resents Mike’s free-for-all parenting and calls him “The Disneyland Daddy.”
When Mike drops off the kids at Vicki’s apartment on Sunday night, they are wound up, bubbling about all the things they did with Dad over the weekend and not wanting the fun to end. Within minutes, excitement turns to disrespect, when Vicki asks them to help with chores and get to their homework. They talk back, act out and tune their mother out. Sunday nights with mom turn into screaming matches and tears. The anxiety always spills over into Monday morning, when she has to get the kids out of bed and get to work on time.
In her own words, Vicki’s life is “a wreck.” Her priority is to get the bills paid and provide for her kids. In doing so, she feels she is losing control of them at light speed. How can Vicki get back in control, when her parenting efforts are undone weekly by Mike?
Mike doesn’t have effective parenting skills and tries to make up for it with deep pockets. He’s also perfectly happy that the kids go back to their mother’s and act out because it’s gratifying for him; it’s a way to act out his bad feelings toward his ex-wife. Vicki feels cheated, betrayed and resentful about her income disparity with Mike and for having to carry the whole workload of raising the children.
What they both need to understand is that in divorce situations, kids develop a sort of “extra sensory perception” about statements that reflect resentment, anxiety or jealousy. They already feel caught in the middle between their parents, and this heightened sensitivity to their parents’ words makes it even more so.
Can Vicki stop the disrespect and chaos in her home and can Mike learn to be a responsible, effective parent? Yes. But here’s what has to happen:
1.) Manage your feelings. The hard pill for parents, especially mothers, to swallow, is that they have to manage their feelings of resentment and anxiety. Kids do sense when daddy returns them that mom is resentful. This raises their anxiety and contributes to the acting out. I recommend that mom sit down and talk with the kids when things are going well. Make a plan that when they return home, there should be a half hour transition time, where they just go to their rooms and unwind and unpack and have a snack. They don’t talk about the visit with daddy. They don’t talk about the chores. They don’t do anything. They just unwind. After that half hour of transition time, that’s when she meets with the kids and sets up the structure for the night (homework, chores and TV time before bed) and the week (getting up, getting to school on time).
2.) This mom needs to have a structure in the home with rules and very clear expectations. She needs to establish a culture in the home that says, “You’re accountable to me.” What happens at Dad’s house is irrelevant. Mom needs to say this: “You’re not at your father’s anymore. The rules here are these.” Then turn around and walk away. Mom can establish a structure by saying, “It’s eight o’clock. You need to start getting ready for bed. The clearer that structure is and the more it’s backed up by expectations, responsibilities and accountability, the better the chances the kids will respond to it. The simple fact is this: When the kids come back from Dad’s, they need a structure to come home to.
3.) Use a reward system. At the same time, mom can set up a reward system. The kids who do their homework on Wednesday nights when they’re at Dad’s get something extra. It doesn’t have to be something that costs a lot of money. It can be extra computer time, extra phone time or staying up half an hour later the night they get back. There’s also a much easier way to get the kids to do their chores. Give them a certain amount of time to complete a task. If they get it done, they get a reward. For example, if Ryan does the dishes within 15 minutes after supper, he gets an extra half hour on the computer that evening. Vicki should set the limits and make it the kids’ responsibility to meet them. Why? Because they can do it. Kids show us this every day. Why do you think they go home and act out, then go to school the next day and behave themselves? It’s because they can manage different environments effectively.
4.) Try to work out a fair arrangement with the other parent. I think the “Disneyland Daddy” in this case needs to be challenged to become a more responsible parent. If these parents are involved in family therapy or counseling, accelerating Mike’s responsibility needs to be part of the structure. I’ve known families who have worked out an arrangement in therapy that if the child is acting out after being at Dad's house, the father has to come over and help calm him. It puts some responsibility back on the father and discourages him from creating the problem. This can only happen if parents are empowered through the divorce decree and custody arrangement or through regular or court-ordered family therapy. But it’s important for parents in these situations to have that empowerment, so that the family has a structure for the co-parenting task.