The Divorced Dad Volcano

For more depth, see The Best Interests of the Child and Father And Child Reunion

With Columbine and Virginia Tech, we asked “Why?” implying a collective responsibility for the male-style suicides shouting to be heard as massacres. Perhaps, if we ask “Why?” of Alec Baldwin with equal openness, we can understand the divorced dad volcano and defuse potential suicide-homicides that are not uncommon among divorced dads.

When Alec Baldwin feels powerless to prevent his own child from being turned against her own father, he can be “strong” and repress his feelings. But men’s weakness is their façade of strength. And the pressure will build. Anger is the mask of vulnerability. Hence everyone who loves is vulnerable to “losing it.”

Tens of thousands of divorced dads identify with Baldwin’s powerlessness. Many moms want equally-involved dads after divorce, but when a mom doesn’t, most dads find the system’s bias against dads as difficult to remove as syrup is from a pancake.

The foundation of that bias is an ignorance of recent research on what works best for children of divorce.

Three conditions lead to children doing almost as well after divorce as in an intact family. They are:

  • the child has about equal time with mom and dad;
  • parents live close enough that the child does not need to forfeit friends or activities to be with the other parent;
  • little or no bad-mouthing

Surprisingly, if shared parenting is impossible, the children are likely to do better when the primary parent is dad. (“Better” is defined by more than twenty measures: of academic; psychological; social and physical health). This does not mean dad is the better parent. When dad is the primary parent, mom is more likely to remain involved. Ironically, children do better with dad partially because they have more of mom.

Why does mom as primary frequently mean less of dad? In part, because when children live with mom parents are nine times more likely to have conflict. Why? Glynnis Walker’s research found children of divorce almost five times as likely to say “only mom says bad things about dad” than vice versa. Such parental alienation discourages dad’s involvement.

Equal dad involvement means children with fewer of the 5 D’s (drinking, drugs, depression, delinquency, and disobedience), fewer nightmares and temper tantrums, a lower likelihood of bullying, being bullied, being absent from school, being hospitalized, having ADD or ADHD, commiting a crime, or becoming an unwed teenage parent. The child is likely to be more socially adept, have higher self-esteem, and do better on standardized tests. Dad’s involvement is more important than economic well-being.

Dad’s biggest secret appears to be boundary enforcement. Divorced parents both set boundaries: “You can have ice cream when you finish your peas.” But when the child eats some peas and says, “Can I have ice cream?” mom is more likely to say, “If you have this many more peas, then ice cream.” Dad’s response? “We had a deal: ice cream or peas—not some peas.” With dad, the child learns to focus on completing the task. With mom, the child discovers what it can get away with.

It appears boundary enforcement forces the child to think of others’ needs. Thus, counter intuitively, the more dad, the more empathy.

Custody battles, though, leave both parents afraid to enforce boundaries lest the child express preference for the parent that gives more ice cream for fewer peas. To the degree boundary enforcement is a contribution of dad, custody battles deprive the child of dad.

Judges may reinforce this problem. Judges often fear, “If the couple is in conflict, shared parenting will not work.” In fact, the greater the conflict the clearer the judge needs to be that both parents will have equal time. Otherwise, the machinery of competition to be the better parent is activated, giving each parent the incentive to incur the child’s favor with more ice cream, and to alienate the child from the other parent.

Some judges interpret stability as giving the child a primary residence and a primary parent, or “one-parent stability.” However, to the child, one-parent stability is also one-parent abandonment. And it’s worse. The child’s genes are half mom’s and half dad’s. The less the child knows one of its parents, the less the child knows that half of itself. And, of course, bad-mouthing the other parent is really bad-mouthing that half of the child.

It is time to assume some collective responsibility for activating the volcano that is Alec Baldwin, as we did with Virginia Tech. If we cannot give our children both parents in the same home, we can still give them both parents, and both halves of themselves.

Warren Farrell, Ph.D., is author of Father and Child Reunion and the DVD In the Best Interests of the Child, both based on Dr. Farrell’s meta-analysis of U.S. and international studies of what is best for children of divorce. He is the only man in the US ever elected three times to the Board of Directors of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in New York City. He is married with two daughters, living in Mill Valley, California, and virtually at