Help! My child’s father is a psycho-case! I don’t trust him, and everything he says or does is “extreme.”
The recent publicity about Amy Chau’s book on Tiger Parenting has renewed the discussion about how to handle obsessive parents, including those with psychopathic and compulsive personality traits. This includes the father who requires his son to join every sport at school, who insists that parenting time schedules must be strategically built around games and tournaments, and who seems to be re-living his own lapsed dreams through his over-burdened son. It includes the dogmatic mother who requires her daughter to attend ballet recitals, piano lessons, and school productions relentlessly, with no down time, no private time or play time with her friends.
It’s one thing for two parents, living together and happily married, to adopt an aggressive tiger parenting style — that’s a controversy in its own right. But when the two parents are separated or divorced, a new set of difficult dilemmas arises. Take the case of the sports-obsessed dad, for example. (This was, in fact, one of my cases some years ago). If the dad does not have primary custody, and if he is obsessively connected to his son’s performance on the baseball team or the football team, he may very well spend his free time fighting and fighting for more custody rights. In fact, such dads — many of whom become the team coach or sponsor — may refuse to give up until they have fought for every Saturday on the calendar, all in an effort to micromanage the child on game days.
Forget the fact that such obsessive behavior, and over-scheduling of the child, may not be healthy or emotionally satisfying for the child. It may also leave the child extremely fatigued and detached from all parenting activity. In essence, when dad’s child returns to mom’s home, he’s a basket case who just wants to be left alone.
Perhaps even more frightening are the parents whose extreme parenting style prompts them to forget about the basics — making sure the child is healthy, safe, well-fed, and well-rested. Deranged super-parents would sooner starve a child or expose him to a dangerous situation than allow him to lose the game or miss the recital.
What do you do if you’re the “normal” parent? For one thing, you should challenge the importance of the other parent’s obsessions. Do not launch a head-on attack against baseball or ballet. This may empower the unstable parent, and will re-define the dispute as a fight over activities rather than a disagreement over how to moderate the child’s time among a number of academic, social and recreational alternatives. Keep watch over your child’s wishes and behaviors. Record the number of days, nights, and weekends the child dedicates to particular activities. Talk to your son or daughter about what he wishes to do, and how he would like to spend his time at your house, and at your ex’s house. Maintain a log of any extreme events — evidence that the other parent failed to demonstrate restraint or moderation, say, for example, when the child was extremely tired, sick or hungry.
When it is time to confront the obsessed parent, think about the method and manner of doing so. Think about the approach. Each case is different: A casual discussion may work in one case; a mention to in-laws may work in another case. Or it may be appropriate to ease into the discussion during a mediation or during a meeting with lawyers. Perhaps the child, if old enough, should be the one to raise the issue. It should almost always be approached delicately because obsessed parents may lack the capacity to process a challenge to their parenting style, except in an aggressive, obsessive way.
If it becomes necessary to put the issue in a judge’s hands, you should provide the court with your logs and calendars, detailing the level of activity that has overburdened your child, the difficult time sharing schedule that has emerged, and the extreme episodes that have impacted your child’s health or safety. If a custody evaluator, social worker or psychologist has been engaged, then your child’s true feelings should be shared with the professional and detailed in a report to the court.
Striking balance in a child’s life is difficult enough when the parents are divorced or separated. Where one parent is imbalanced, and is creating an imbalanced situation for the child, the other parent must proceed tactically — not aggressively — to resolve the situation.
If you’ve personally experienced any such situations, please share them with us.