Jill is a single mom of a nine-year-old daughter, whom she’s been raising by herself since Haley was an infant. “The hardest part about being a single parent is having no one else there when Haley acts up. It’s all me. She doesn’t listen to me, and then I just don’t know what to do. I’m really getting anxious about her teenage years. I’m not sure if I can keep her on track by myself, she’s so willful.”

Jill is far from being alone. Single parenting is one of the toughest jobs on the planet, yet more than 50 percent of households in America are headed by just one mother or father. Much of the time that parent is working full-time and trying to maintain the home, in addition to everything that comes with parenting a child. To make matters worse, often single moms and dads, like Jill, report feeling as if their children aren’t listening to them or following family rules. Coupled with the guilt that many single parents feel, this can be a one-two punch to the faith you have in the job you’re doing as you raise your kids on your own. So what can you do to maintain confidence in yourself and peace in your home?

Empowering Parents spoke with Dr. Jane Nelsen, Ed. D., the author and co-author of 17 acclaimed books on parenting, including Positive Discipline for Single Parents, and she offered this advice to those who are flying solo:

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1. Remember that two is a family. One single parent with one child, that’s a family. In society, just about everything is blamed on single parents and broken homes, and it’s really sad because it’s just not true. The most important thing is not the number of parents in the home, but the parenting. We always ask people, ‘Don’t you know single parents who have raised great kids?’ So instead of thinking, “We are a broken home,” say, “We are a single-parent home”— it’s just a different kind of family. I think a lot of being a successful single parent lies in your perception. By that, I mean single parents often think it’s more difficult for them. It’s so easy to think the grass is greener on the other side, and yet when you have a two-parent family, your spouse might not be that supportive: There’s usually one parent that prefers to be more strict and one that’s more lenient, and then they fight about who is right. A big part of changing your perceptions about single parenthood is if you see your situation differently. Try to see your family’s situation as an opportunity rather than a negative. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t any difficulties in being a single mom or dad, but there are advantages to keep in mind as well.

2. Give up your guilt. What you believe, your kids will pick up on. If a single parent feels guilty about the dissolution of the marriage, their ability to provide financially, or any other reason, kids will work that. But if a parent says “This is the way it is for us, we’ll make the best of it, we’re going to do just fine,” the child picks up on that confidence, security and commitment instead. If the single parent feels guilty and thinks they have to “make something up” to their children, the kids can start to feel either deprived or entitled.

3. Let your kids know they’re needed in the family. One of the biggest problems with children today is that they’re not “needed” in the family. They’re not given enough responsibilities and are not expected to meet the ones they have. But a single parent can truthfully say, “We’re a team, we can share the responsibility.” Give your kids opportunities to feel needed and valued. Give them real responsibilities in the home such as helping with laundry or dinner (depending upon the child’s age.) Single parents can look at this as an opportunity, and say, “Wow, I really do need my kids.”

4. Solve problems together. Our theme in the Positive Discipline books is focusing on solutions with your children. The more you get them involved in “What’s the problem and what’s the solution?” the more they’ll feel motivated to follow those rules. I think problems come up when parents start to dictate the rules, and single parents may feel they need to be more punitive to keep control. We’re so afraid that if we don’t add punishment, we’re letting the child get away with something. I believe in allowing children to experience the consequences of their choices. Don’t “ball them out and then bail them out.” If your child is careless, leaves his bike in the driveway and it gets run over, a parent might punish him by saying, “OK, I’m not buying you a new bike and you can’t ride your bike anymore this summer.” But they’ve already experienced the consequence: they’ve experienced loss or sadness by losing the bike. Instead, if you focus on solutions with your children, you can help them be more responsible. So now you can say, “I’m willing to sit down and work with you on how you can earn some money to buy a new bike.” You don’t punish or rescue them—it’s not about permissiveness. You come up with a solution together. It’s a matter of being aware so you can focus on solutions.

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5. What happens at the ex’s house stays at the ex’s house.
When another parent or an ex-spouse is involved, things can get complicated, especially if the rules of the other household your child spends time in are different. Often children will try to negotiate with you based on what goes on at your ex’s place. When your kids don’t want to follow your family’s rules, say, “This is how we do things in our home.” Don’t let yourself be blackmailed or controlled by the ex and the rules (or lack thereof) in the ex’s home.

6. Have regular family meetings with kids. This is important for all families, but is particularly helpful for single parents as it serves to provide structure. Sit down once a week and focus on what’s happening in the family. I advise parents to start the meeting with compliments, verbalize those, and then focus on solutions to problems that are cropping up together. You might say, “Jack, I really appreciate the way you’ve been keeping your room clean lately. Nice job.” Go around the table and have everyone say something good about each person present. Then work together as a family to set new rules. For example, maybe there’s been a lot of name-calling in the house. Your rule that week could be, “I want to stop the name-calling. It’s hurtful and I want it to stop.” Then, if it happens again later on that week, you can say, “Name calling is really a problem for me. I think it is hurtful and disrespectful. I would really like your help. What ideas do you have to solve the problem? Let’s brainstorm and see how many ideas we can come up with and then we’ll choose one that works for everyone.”

With family meetings, kids feel needed, empowered, and motivated to meet their responsibilities. They feel listened to, valued, taken seriously. Kids rebel if they perceive that we keep trying to take their power away. We need to start training young children to use the power they do have by coming up with a solution that’s respectful of everyone. That’s why I love family meetings. It teaches them to contribute and use their power in useful ways. Do it once a week without fail, make it the most important date on your calendar so kids will know it, too.

You can also use your family meetings to come up with ideas for activities you’d like to do with your children—everyone can give a suggestion. Even though time is at a premium for single parents, be sure to remember to plan time for fun. It doesn’t have to cost money or even take that long to do. Play Frisbee in the park, play a game, but try to schedule regular, fun activities with your kids. This will help you strengthen your family, and puts you on the road to single parenting success.

Dr. Jane Nelsen Dr. Jane Nelsen received her Ed. D in Educational Psychology from the University of San Francisco and is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist. Dr. Nelsen has appeared on Oprah and the Sally Jessy Raphael Show. Most importantly, Dr. Nelsen’s methods have been tested in her own home—she is the mother of seven children and the grandmother of twenty. For more information about Dr. Nelsen, please visit www.positivediscipline.com

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Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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