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The Disneyland Daddy

by James Lehman, MSW
The Disneyland Daddy

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.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

I am a divorced mom with 1 son and have the "Disneyland Dad" for an ex. My son comes back from time @ his dad's house and struggles to fit back into the structure we have here @ home. My ex will NEVER go to counseling nor do I expect him to ever WANT my son to come home and be happy & reasonable. That's ok---this article gave me some ideas I can work with to make the transition back home easier for both myself and my son. Thanks!

Comment By : ani

I'm not yet divorced and am at the beginning of this cycle. This article gave me some great ideas. Thank you.

Comment By : mspugtona

My sister is not divorced yet; her ex "to be dysfunctional" is a disneyland dad via the phone as he has doesn't even have enough responsibility to his children for regular routine visitation. My sister carries the total parenting & responsibility....which is a positive. She forwarded this article to me to assist me in understanding why she reacts to the children after phone calls from "disneyland" dad or disneyland land "ex mother in law/father in law". It is so apparent how the "ex to be" is the way he is after watching and observing is parents as "disneyland grandparents"! Great article that can be utilized to save hurt between the "responsible" parent and the child(ren). Kudos!

Comment By : Shelly

What about Disneyland Mommy? Moms who move out and leave the kids with Dad.

Comment By : KM

My ex is such a Disneyland daddy, does not like to discipline the children, and is too busy with his business to pay attention to them but he buys them stuff readily. The children have no chores at his home. My two older girls see the differences between his home and my home and know what should and should not be, but my youngest son who just turned 13 prefers to be at his dad's home because there he has more freedom to do things that I would not condone at my home (play games until 3am, watches inappropriate movies, etc...) His dad did not even know he was doing these things (my girls told me), and when I asked him about that he got defensive and claimed that our son was a perfect child without any problem whatsoever. If he had some problem at school with a teacher, it's the teacher who was at fault. If he was rude with me, it was my fault and my problem. When it is time for the children to be dropped off at my home, sometimes our son would stay behind at his dad's, and when I asked his dad to bring him to my home, he would say ok he would bring him over later, but then days go by and nothing happened. Please advise how I should deal with the situation. Thanks.

Comment By : Gwen

This article presents a lot of good ideas. For instance, I really like the idea of providing children with "transition time" right after they get home from a visit with Dad. However, I disagree with the assertion, at the end of the article, that if a child acts up after he/she comes back home from a visit, that the child should be sent back to Dad's house for an extra night. That will only reinforce the bad behavior. If the kid is acting out, how is it beneficial to send him/her back for one more fun night of no rules? And if the reasoning is that it is supposed to somehow make the dad behave more responsibly - well, that's just unrealistic.

Comment By : Single Mom

* Dear Gwen: You probably will need to speak to your divorce attorney for advice around handling visitation issues. James Lehman’s recommendations in this article are very good for knowing how to talk to your children about separate rules in your home. Allow your kids a transition time when they return home to you after a visit with Dad, then get them back on track with your household routines. If you hear the complaint that at Dad’s the expectations are different, just state, “There may be different rules at your Dad’s home, but in this house, these are the rules.” It’s not uncommon for divorced parents to do things very differently. Kids are capable of learning both parent’s systems—just as they are capable of learning there are different behavior expectations of them at school compared to home. We hope your family is able to find solutions to these problems. We wish your family the best.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I think the term "Disneyland" dad needs to be abolished. First off, it has nothing to do with Disneyland, but boundaries. The theme park itself has been a great healer for helping my daughters cope with a separated family. Getting to enjoy certain things (i.e. candy, ice cream, etc.) should come with moderation. I realize there are dads who act out in defiance for revenge, but this article could do better at not painting fathers in a bad light.

Comment By : JT

While in many cases it may be lazy parenting causing this, it saddens me that no space in this article was used to consider the position of the non-custodial parent. Even the language you use, "their visit with daddy", you don't "visit" a parent when you're a child and they are no more visiting their dad than they are visiting you when you have custody. Children often entirely lose a bond with one of their parents after divorce, and while the methods here may be flawed, you have a father who's trying to keep his children's love, even though they spend far less time with him than with their mother. It's a lot harder to be a tough parent when you have custody 4 weekdays and every other weekend than when you only have 1 weekday and every other parent. Unlike the previous poster I think it's a great idea for the kid to spend more time with the other parent if there are behavior issues. It will help the non-custodial parent have an actual parent relationship with their child instead of being someone they 'visit' and it will give them the time to establish boundaries without risking the kids not wanting to visit anymore.

Comment By : Dan

How about switching the parental placement time and put the mom in the dad's shoes. I have been on both sides. After not seeing my kids for 7 days I would like to have some fun with them. The Wednesday night placement schedule does more harm than good and is really counterproductive to the relationship of the children and father. The mom should try losing the time with her kids and go to the Wednesdays and every other weekends and see how her behavior/relationship with her children changes. The last thing the kids or the dad want to do on their Wednesdays and alternate weekends is go through steps of how to make mom happy. Dad most likely wants to make good memories for what is now a restricted time he has with them. They are divorced, obviously she wasn't happy in the first place, hence the divorce. As far as the resentment of income disparity, how would a wife feel if a guy said he wanted her to work full time and he stay home with the children? A woman who stays home is a homemaker; a man who stays home is a bum in our society. While at home did the wife have to worry about bills, clothing, insurance, car/house loans, grocery bills, utilities, etc ? It seems dad was taking care of that. Just because she is no longer receiving those benefits she received in the marriage doesn't mean she should resent him since she no longer receives them after the marriage. I'm unsure how old the children are but in my marriage, my ex stayed home well into the secondary grades for my children. She had every opportunity to work or educate herself but chose not to. I think this may be the case for the mom. I know this sounds like I have a sour opinion of the mom, but BOTH parents need to be PARENTS, and not let their immaturity taint the children. I'm sure mom has some skewed perceptions of how dad handles the children, but again, you lay in the bed you make and the best solution is to have not divorced at all. Every empirical study shows that is THE BEST option in all aspects for a family and the individuals in the family.

Comment By : mitchhunted

I have to agree with the article, but also point out that this applies to moms too. I single parented my three kids for two years and now have two extra kids after re-marrying. Both the other mom and the other dad are like this, all fun and games and none of the responsibility. I think it's partly human nature, I know if I'm away from my kids for work then I love to spoil them when I get back home. But just remember, it's moms too.

Comment By : Gary

Mike in the above scenario may or may not have effective parenting skills, but there's lways a danger that this will happen when a parent only sees their children for relatively short amount of time. It's like the traditional role of grandparents, where they are not involved with bringing up the children on a day-to-day basis, who spoil them for a day or two, before handing them back to Mum and Dad. Also, Mike may be deeply insecure about his relationship with the children. If he upsets the kids by not allowing to do what they want and enjoy themselves, he is possibly afraid that Vicki will use this as an excuse to interfere with his access. From the article we cannot tell if Vicki has tried to interfere in the past or if Mike might have any justification for feeling this way, but it is possible. The ultimate fall-out from this situation might be if, when they are older, the children say that they want to go to live with Mike full-time. If what I've written is correct and ike does have effective parenting skills the children might be in for a rude shock. Tackling this situation must include speaking to Mike, and allaying any fears about adverse consequences if he disciplines the children and family courts must also back him up if the children start complaining (as they surely will at the outset) and Vicki does use this as an excuse to interfere with access.

Comment By : arundodonax

Nothing is black and white.I have my children every second weekend and Wednesday afternoons up to 7.30pm when i have to take them back to their mothers. I have had this arrangements for seven years.(established by court order when the eldest was 6) I have been arguing with my ex for 3 years about at least letting them stay over on Wednesday nights to help them have more "structure" i.e so they can have a more balanced exposure to both parents, so they can have my help with their homework, so they dont have to pack up and be ready to go back to their mothers half way through an evening. The problem of so called Disneyland Dads can also be attributable to the inability of fathers to be able to put in place a structure with so little time available to them with their children. It also no doubt can be a reaction to feeling marginalized from one's kids and doing what one can to have your children love you. Its a fine line when you see your children so little. Its hard to put in place a structure when contact is fragmented.Particularly when you know that the ex considers you to be an inconvenience regarding her need for total control of the childrens agendas.

Comment By : Fatherof3

Being a step-mom, I also have a different perspective than some people do. When we get our step kids, I don't want them to spend their time doing chores and such things in a house that they don't even live in. For many families weekends are a time to play and have fun. This is what we implement in our house. We do establish rules about what my step-kids can do and cannot do. We also try to make it as fun as possible for them. We don't get to see them very often and we want to spend as much time as possible with them catching up and doing the things that we like to do as a family.

Comment By : stepmomof2

I feel like I have the Disneyland Dad of an ex. They do act out when they come back from their dad's mainly my 6 year old. Not just after he comes back, but he acts out when he's at home during the week. He is verbally abusive to me and his siblings, he's even hit me and his siblings, and he gets easily frustrated with tantrums and just yells. When I try to discipline him he says you dont like me just throw me in the ocean or cops take me away or you dont love me ill just tell my daddy, etc. He does act out when I take him to the grocery store to get his haircut, etc. Now if I dont buy him something he wanted he says i dont want this or he'll want something else now when he wants me to buy him everything and I don't, but he always says fine my daddy will buy it for me. Now I know his dad doesnt like me he has talked bad about me in front of the kids, but he doesnt care. If my 6 year old has a bad day at school and he goes for a visit with daddy he tells me he's not going to buy him anything, but when they come back my kids are happy and say daddy bought us legos, etc. I have talked to him about not buying them everything they want and he ended up buying them video games. It's frustrating! He wont ever go to counseling and he has told me he can do whatever he wants with his kids when they are with him. He never calls them, he didnt take them for his birthday and I couldnt get a hold of him so my boys can tell him happy birthday...it just seems like he is a disneyland dad, but is glad they can act out with me, etc. I dont know what to do. P.S. My 6 year old has adhd and is defiant! Also I try and let their dad see them as much as possible, but there ar etimes hes busy, doesnt answer his phone, and doesnt call his children.

Comment By : what2domom

Mine isn't exactly a Disneyland Dad because he has no money. He lives at his mom's house, eats her food, etc. My son doesn't like going over there because it is boring and his grandmother, even though she does love him a lot, gets bad mouthed by her son so the anger drips down to our son. He was having outbursts all the time in the summer and as the restrictions grew he started to not have his violent outbursts. Then I noticed that whenever he goes to his dad's house a day or two later he flips out over rules I've set when he breaks them. He didn't go to his dad's for 2 months and he didn't have any episodes at all and then once he went there was one a few days later. He went to his dad's again this weekend (again, he has no structure on when he sees the kids) and again he had an outburst today when I took the xbox away from him because he claimed to be sick from school. I don't know if it's related. His dad gets mad at me because I do let them play video games and since there is nothing to do they don't stay up late at his place, but I've heard he's really lax about the swearing and talking bad. I know for a fact that he will say "whatever, I don't want to know" when the kids do something bad. There is no backup system from him. We've been divorced for awhile. I'm going nuts here.

Comment By : out of options

For 7 years I have been dealing with the Disneyland Dad, my daughter (now a teen) ever does her homework there and constantly fights and challenges me why she has to do anything in my home when "with her Dad's family, she is so cool" because all they ever do is see her on vacations and trips, while I do all of the day-to-day parenting. With a teenager, this has become so stressful.The past year has been absolutely exhausting. And he is one of those power types who took everything in the divorce, so I have that added as well, as to why I won't buy her everything, when Dad will. Why I take her to the cheap stores and he does..whatever!

Comment By : ALlison

A way to stop this Disneyland dad is it give more visitation. Trying to cram life into a few days a month is going to be not normal. It is like going to visit a cousin or grandparent, when going to dad's because he doesn't ever get to see the children. Try walking in a parents shoes that misses their kids everyday of their lives. Aching to be with their children. I would say try being the non-custodial parent give the other parent custody. You will understand the situation a lot better. Then you can feel like the fun parent.

Comment By : noncustodialparent

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divorce, effective parenting, establishing structure, ex spouses, single parenting, James Lehman, The Total Transformation, Parenting Skills, Deep Pockets, child disciplining tips, Kids behavior

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