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The Holidays and "Disneyland Parent" Syndrome

Will your children be spending a good portion of the holidays with your ex-spouse? If so, you may find yourself dealing with “Disneyland parent” syndrome…

What is “Disneyland parent” syndrome? One possible reaction of an ex-spouse with part-time custody is to spoil the kids, ignore family rules, and become the “fun” mother or father in an effort to alleviate guilt, win the kids over, or make the ex-spouse look bad.  After divorce, it is common for one of the parents to feel guilty and think that her/she has to buy the youngster’s love and affection. In many cases, it is the nonresident parent who feels this burden so that his/her youngster will look forward to their time together.

Some Disneyland parents may only see their children on holidays, but when they do, they make up for lost time and may take their children on extravagant trips, ignore bedtimes, eat cupcakes for breakfast, or skip from one adventure to the next. When they are away from their kids, they may send expensive gifts that were not agreed upon by the other parent. Simply stated, these ex-spouses are focused on what their children want – and not so much on what they need.

While nonresident dads are often perceived as “the Disneyland parent,” nonresident moms are generally considered to be more involved in their kid's daily lives. However, research suggests that nonresident moms and dads exhibit a similar pattern of participation in activities with their absent kids, controlling for socio-demographic/family characteristics.

Most nonresident moms and dads either engage in only leisure activities with their kids – or have no contact at all. Only about 1/3 of Disneyland parents mention school among activities they participate in with their youngster. These findings indicate that nonresident “parent-child interaction patterns” may be the result of circumstances surrounding the nonresidential role rather than the gender of the ex-spouse.

Tips for ex-spouses in dealing with the “Disneyland parent” issue:

1. Be sure that you and your ex discuss a list of family rules that are enforced at both homes.

2. Don’t focus on material goods or having every holiday being an exciting vacation. Instead, listen to your children, understand their needs, and focus on spending quality time with them.

3. It is important for the nonresident parent to call as much as possible. This lets the youngster know that, even though you can’t be around every day, you are still there for them and they can talk to you any time of day.

4. If you are the nonresident parent, it will be natural for you to want to spoil your youngster if you haven’t seen him/her for an extended period of time. But it is important to remember your youngster still needs boundaries when he/she is with you. Setting boundaries will help your youngster respect you instead of seeing you as just a “buddy with money.”

5. Never complain about your ex-spouse’s issues with your kids or make your kids take sides.

6. If you are the resident parent, try giving your ex-spouse more responsibility during the kids’ visits (e.g., getting them haircuts, taking them clothes shopping, etc.).

7. Understand that your divorce was likely necessary and that your children will be happier IF you and your ex-spouse are happier apart.

8. Understand that your ex-spouse is probably displaying feelings of deep guilt about the divorce, as well as not being able to be with his/her children full-time. Have an open and honest conversation with your ex regarding the issue, and reassure your ex that he/she doesn’t have to bribe the children for love.

9. When the children return home after visiting the nonresident parent, have a one-hour “transition time” where the kids just go to their rooms and unwind, unpack and have a snack. They don’t have to talk about the visit, chores, homework, or anything else. They just relax and re-acclimate to their home-environment. After an hour or so, meet with the children to set-up some structure for the night (e.g., homework, chores, TV time, bedtime, etc.). Also set-up some structure for the week (e.g., getting up, getting to school on time, etc.). Structure helps kids feel safe and content.

10. You don’t have to buy your kids lavish gifts every time they come to visit in order for them to enjoy their time with you. The small things are often THE MOST important things (e.g., leaving a note in their lunch box, watching cartoons together, walking around the park, etc.).  It’s the small things that convey to your kids that you still care about them.

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