Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Challenges And Rewards Of Single Parenting

March 12, 2006

The term "single parent" has a bad rap because of the growing drain of teenage pregnancy on our society and the social problems created by a cycle of welfare dependency.

A second category of "single parenting" is the divorced, widowed and separated parents who are raising children by themselves. The effects of divorce on children have been studied and are real. We know a lot about the short term effects and a little about long term outcomes.

This column is written for those women (85 percent) and men (15 percent) who are raising children on their own and are doing the best they can with less than ideal circumstances.

The advantages of single parenting. Amazingly, single parenting can be a positive experience. Many parents count it a blessing for their children to be away from a destructive marriage and a hostile, angry family atmosphere. Children learn to be independent and take responsibility at younger ages. They understand the need to be supportive of their parent and to pitch in and work for common family goals.

In addition, children really get to know and communicate with their parent under these circumstances. Special bonds of closeness develop.

Children are also exposed to a courageous role model who is committed to their well-being and strives hard to meet the challenges of life. Parental commitment and love are given and felt while a single parent struggles with their own adjustment, grief and financial problems.

The pitfalls of single parenting. It takes one or two years to stabilize a family after a divorce. If Mom has the children, boys will have more behavior problems during that time. Boys will be difficult with their mothers. She may feel guilty and not be as effective in her discipline as she used to be. School problems will show up for a semester as the children cope with divorce.

If the divorce involves a move, adjustments will be doubly hard for both the children and parent as they adjust to a new community or neighborhood and lose their familiar supports. The mother especially may experience financial and role strain. Her new schedule and responsibilities will reduce her availability to her children.

A child's adjustment depends a great deal on their parent's post divorce adjustment. Single parents are often mildly depressed and distracted by financial problems and emotional turmoil caused by the divorce. Conflict with an ex-spouse over money or visitation rights can affect children.

A single parent may have trouble establishing clear generational boundaries and might be tempted to put their children into adult roles as confidants. Dating and courtship can disturb children who retain fantasies of the parents getting back together.

Coping advice. Psychologist Leah Klungness of Locust Valley, Long Island, New York has written a book on single parenting, "The Complete Single Mother: Reassuring Answers to Your Most Challenging Concerns." Here is some highlights of her advice.

- Avoid a victim mentality. Get away from being in a dependent role on an ex-spouse as soon as you can. Take charge of upgrading your education and training. Invest in yourself. You will be a good role model, show good time management, have good study habits and work toward goals. The children will learn from that.

- Be calm and happy. Spend time nurturing, having fun and doing things with your children. Don't try to do too much. Make hard choices. You can't do everything. Lower your expectations. You can't go to every game, be the class mother and have sparkling toilet bowls. Put your time into warm contact with your children. Reduce your controllable stress.

- Work through the emotional issues of the divorce. Go for counseling. Join a support group. Reduce conflict, as much as possible, with your ex-spouse. Don't make your children the battleground. Learn about how divorce affects children and be aware what can be done to make positive adjustments.

- Enlist help. The non-custodial parent can be a resource to you especially with the same sex children - fathers with sons, mothers with daughters. If the non-custodial parent isn't involved, same sex role models - uncles and aunts, grandmother or grandfather, older siblings, church leaders, coaches, Big Brothers/Big Sisters - make a big difference.

- Rebuild your support system. Gather support from family, friends and church to help you. Make new friends. That way you won't make the children your peers and confidants. Work out exchanges with others to get the help you need. Parents need feedback and an outlet to discuss parenting issues. Team up with a family member, friends, other single parents, ex-spouse when possible, and helping professionals such as counselors, clergy etc.

- Try to keep the family routine and environment the same. Be consistent in your discipline. Have a few family rules and stick with them. Pay attention to the school adjustments. Get children the help they need. Work with the teachers and counselors.

- Don't be too quick to involve children with dating partners until firm commitments are in place. Hide the affection from them until the relationship is permanent. Children don't like seeing their parent as a sexual being.

How you handle courtship will be a model for their own courtship patterns some day. Keep the children's involvement with the dating partner several steps behind the courtship progress. They don't need more losses from attachments that fall apart.