‘Disney Dads’ is a term not everybody would have heard of. But, if you’re a separated or divorced mum, it’s likely that you know one or deal with one regularly.
The legal definition of a ‘Disney Dad’ is “a noncustodial parent who indulges his or her child with gifts and good times during visitation and leaves most or all disciplinary responsibilities to the other parent”. Another form of this term is “Disney Parent” which also covers mothers but, as a rule, it is usually used in reference to fathers as fathers are generally the non-custodial parent (for many reasons).
Whilst the definition of a disney dad itself is quite straight forward, the reasons why many dads become disney dads, is not so straight forward. There are a stack of reasons they tend to become all about the FUN and not about the parenting. Many intentional, and deliberately manipulative. All destructive in the long term.
To give you a little more insight a disney dad is someone who makes visitation time with his kids essentially rule, routine and boundary free. Think plenty of junk food, ridiculously late nights, no limits, excessive tv and gaming time, no homework and LOTS of gifts and activities.
Essentially a disney dad is a ‘friend’ with a bad influence, not a parent.
He relies on using these tactics to build relationships with his kids during the limited time he has with them. He will also often dictate to the custodial parent how to best parent the children but he rarely helps in any of the ‘dirty work’…. the parenting mothers are left to do.
Disney dads spend frivolously, yet many cry poor when it comes to paying child support. Thus, financial abuse post separation. The emphasis there being on ‘post’ because so many people think financial abuse stops when parents spit. Wrong. It just morphs into something else.
In many cases, narcissism is at play. Fathers with narcissistic traits are extremely self-centred and therefore fail to recognise their children as separate to themselves. Often the children are seen as an extension of the father in which case the needs, interests and desires of the children are overlooked.
So, what is the impact of this behaviour?
Well, as you can imagine the children are dropped home after visitation and BOOM, mum becomes the ‘bad cop’. She is left with over tired, often exhausted, kids… kids who are pushing the boundaries because “Dad lets us”… kids who refuse to eat healthy food or do their homework… kids who demand more ‘stuff’ because “Dad lets us”… kids who won’t go to bed at bedtime. Essentially, home becomes a battlefield and the children often take days to settle back in. Dad is the ‘good cop’ and mum is the ‘bad cop’. As black and white as black and white can get.
That’s the short term but long term the effects are much worse. Children are torn between their parents, they are destabilised, they often have trouble going between each home, they can feel resentful, they may begin to hide things or behaviours and they can struggle with mental health issues. The impact can be devastating.
I was recently interviewed about this very topic by Julia Hasche of the Single Mother Survival Guide, Australia’s leading podcast for single mums. In the nearly 60 minute interview we chatted about all the reasons why they do what they do and how to handle it as a mum. You can listen to the interview here.
In this week’s article I’ll focus on why disney dads do what they do and in next week’s article I’ll dive into how mums can handle the situation.
So, let’s get into it, why disney dads do what they do…
To one-up mum
This behaviour is often about showing off and, in many cases, it gives disney dad a huge ego boost. In a nutshell it is about rubbing it in mum’s face.
To make mum jealous
Not much explanation is required for this one! This behaviour is often about reminding mum of the life she too could be having with him. It is also about showing mum that he can still have fun, or MORE fun, without her. Obviously this will depend on who ended the relationship. If you left him, watch out, this tactic will be high on his ‘frequently used’ list.
Essentially this behaviour is about winning the kids over by buying their love and attention. Disney dads will use these behaviours to get the kids on his side and to make mum feel less interesting to the child. It is the classic good cop/bad cop power trip. Disney dads will create ‘friendship’ rather than a parent/child relationship so that no (parenting!) work is required of dad when the kids are with him. One of the most deliberately used tactics, manipulation, this allows disney dad to continue controlling the children when they go home… they misbehave which annoys mum and makes the kids dislike their mother. Thus, the appeal of the disney dad and his ‘way of life’ increases.
Guilt about not seeing the children often
For some dads there is huge guilt around not seeing their children regularly. In this case self-serving behaviour is the default … this is about trying to ‘make good’ by actually ‘making bad’. The OTT buying and doing is about easing the father’s emotional load.
No parenting skills
For some disney dads the behaviour is not manipulative at all but merely a reflection of their lack of parenting skills. Many of them just don’t know what is required of a parent. For others it’s about a complete disinterest in parenting.
Don’t know what else to do except have fun!
Disney dads also often have no idea what else to do with the kids except buy things and have huge, lavish days out. Many of them don’t think about other options like sport, board games, hobbies, getting school work done, having simple home movie nights, building something in the yard or doing a science experiment. The shiny bright things are just ‘easier’ for them. In many cases they also fail to see the joy of simply being together and connecting simply.
Distraction from his responsibilities
This one is obvious. When you’re busy having FUN there is limited time for cooking, cleaning, disciplining, boring tasks like shopping, homework or chores. When the kids are always entertained disney dad doesn’t have to deal with the HARD stuff like boredom, missing mum or tantrums when they don’t get their way.
To sabotage mum’s relationship with her kids
Disney dad behaviour is often a last resort to teach mum a lesson if she was the one who ended the relationship. Many disney dads will stop at nothing to destroy the relationship the mother has built with her children, particularly if they have become closer since the separation. Consider this behaviour an act of revenge.
To control mum via the only thing left…. THE KIDS!
When a mother leaves the father of her children, particularly in the case of domestic violence where great strength, bravery and determination are involved, a disney dad will actively seek to find new ways to get at her. Consider it punishment. When women leave a volatile relationship and go on to heal and have a great life, a bitter disney dad will use what is often the only thing left… the children. Toxic disney dads know that the best way to break a mother’s heart is to hurt her children, emotionally or physically.
So there you have it. A detailed look at what disney dads are and why they do what they do. As I said earlier come back next week for a look at how you can manage this behaviour when it’s your family living the disney nightmare.
Remember, if you need support dealing with this sort of behaviour, I am here for you. I am a solo parent and domestic violence survivor, so I have first-hand experience in what I write about. I WILL believe you and I WILL understand you. Counselling services are available Australia wide. You can reach out to me here.
Until next week…
Yours in better mental health,