Newtown presents us with many legitimate issues: gun control, inadequate psychiatric care, and violent video games are just a few. But, there’s a divorce and father perspective to this story — not to mention a story of rage as well.
First off, I don’t want to judge Adam Lanza’s parents. I don’t have insight, and if I did, I wouldn’t publish it. There is enough suffering for that family. All I want to do here is segue from an awful violent act by a young man who comes from a divorced home. It raises questions about the value of fathers in male violence.
Can fathers help their sons grow past male rage? It goes something like this:
- The young man is immature, psychiatrically impaired, or regressed.
- He perceives an insult or a sense of danger (called a narcissistic injury) and is compelled to act.
- Then he rages like an infant in an adult or adolescent body (which can be dangerous).
- There is no balance; the rage attack is all about his perceived injury.
- The attack is rationalized as self-protective or justly vindictive.
Here’s the Point
While mothers are crucial in bringing up boys, dads often have their own role in minimizing destructive male violence. As a child psychiatrist, I am not pro-father or pro-mother but rather pro-child. In my opinion, divorce can still be done better, where both parents give their kids what they need. Boys need nurturing, limit setting, and role models. It is tough for a single mother to provide it all.
The Intelligent Divorce Project has a simple premise. Divorce is often handled badly. For many reasons, kids can lose out. While collaborative divorce and mediation have introduced some sanity into the divorce process, too often American divorce ends up with the estrangement of one parent — usually the father.
This is seldom desirable.
The Single Parent Dilemma
It’s very difficult for a mother to discipline an angry teenage son. This is something that I've seen in decades of work. Women can and do raise wonderful boys and bring them to manhood, but if there’s a conflict, it’s tough.
One major reason is that a boy, or young man, will often see caving into his mother’s wishes as castrating. This is largely unconscious. It may not be right, but he hates his dependency and bridles at being reminded that Mom’s in control.
This aggression requires containment and some single mothers have no one to turn to. One can claim that this statement is culturally biased; that women are perfectly capable of raising healthy, non-violent young men. I agree, but it’s not the whole story.
Narcissistic rage develops when someone is frustrated and literally regresses to infant-like tantruming in an adolescent or adult body. It's a "win at any cost," self-righteous anger. It's a "take no prisoners" anger. And it's destructive.
Too many years of clinical experience argues that male rage is best handled by both parents.
Healthy fathers (and male role models) can serve as an important buffer between a young man’s rage and expressing that rage.
A normal, well-intentioned father dictates the male creed: Real men don't hit women or threaten them. Real men know how to handle their anger.
The boy internalizes the father’s strength and it becomes his own. He takes pride in containing his anger — and in his own developing masculinity. This is a healthy outcome. It’s just tough to pull off as a single mom.
Yet to be fair, some fathers are creeps and destructive.
In these cases, most mothers are quite happy to have a distance. An abusive, alcoholic father may cause much more harm than good, showing his son, by example, the legitimacy of bullying when frustrated. Or an embittered father can be so angry that he’ll encourage disrespect in the custodial home, as a way of getting back at his ex-wife through their son. These fathers have their own narcissistic rage. They are better off many miles away.
The Lanza Case lies so outside the norm that no one can ethically comment on what his dad could have done — or if it would have made a difference. Probably, in retrospect, only the safety of an in-patient unit may have saved the day.
In many divorces, it's often only one parent making the decisions, which can undermine the teamwork required to get decent treatment. Once again, by and large, two parents are better than one.
Women’s Rights in Divorce
Over the past few decades, many have fought for the rights of women. The rise of the feminist movement has brought about positive changes for both women and men. More women are in the workplace — and more men are interested in parenting. This is all to the good.
Women are more protected nowadays. Domestic violence is taken seriously, and child support can sometimes be sequestered. It's a blessing that women are less vulnerable to manipulative fathers than in decades past. For instance, it's tougher and less accepted to hide wealth.
Fathers in Divorce
Fathers are more engaged now than ever; a huge change from 25 years ago. In a divorce, more fathers want to stay involved and they fight for it. Yet, even today, for every mother who’s drifting out of her children’s lives post-divorce, you will find many more minimally involved dads.
Some men are shallow people who just want out to start a new life with someone else. They see their kids without real enthusiasm, if at all.
And some dads are pushed out by mothers who want control of the kids, as well as the support that goes with it. Women are not by nature better people than men. They take advantage of the system just as men do. The results are that some controlling mothers successfully find ways to gain controlling custody and push the father out.
The term Parental Alienation Syndrome was invented to speak about the most extreme cases where a mother or father actively poisons the kids against their ex-spouse in order to gain control. This is a form of child abuse.
Kids Need Both Parents
Men and women are different. Our physiology is different, and much more importantly, our psychology is different.
I’m not proposing that single moms aren’t good enough; rather that they're often not enough.
When possible, children need both their mom and their dad.
Overcoming Power Struggles
Too often, divorce provokes a terrible power struggle. The mother has rights and the father has rights. But what about the children’s rights? The Intelligent Divorce Project advocates for those rights. This battle of ego (between the mom and dad) comes at the expense of the children’s health and happiness — and this is not okay!
Divorce is stressful and many parents regress. You are anxious about money, about being exploited, about whether you will be lonely for years to come; or you are angry about betrayal or grieving the loss of your family as you knew it.
Because of these pressures, some parents become more controlling, combative, and manipulative. Often it’s all escalated by aggressive matrimonial attorneys. I counsel caution. Yes, it is good to protect yourself. But, also be careful not to make it worse than it has to be. An Intelligent Divorce saves money and often allows for a better outcome.
As adults, we need to have the maturity to do what is best for our children. We need to accept that we cannot do it all alone. Once you have children, you are parents together forever, whether you like him or not; or whether you agree with her on everything or not.
We need fathers to become more active with their sons and daughters. Dads need to be more involved in child-rearing. Financial support counts, but emotional and moral support is the real gold. Helping your son come to terms with his anger is a great gift.
You Are Not Alone
And, if your child's father is not present, you can still find healthy men who can act as mentors. It's important. There are often teachers, relatives, coaches, or clergy who can provide the male role modeling that a teenage boy desperately needs.
It comes down to this: Fathers count. Mothers count. And, children do better when both are on board together.