Raising kids in a single-parent home has its own unique set of challenges that require confidence, resilience, and courage. It’s hard enough to raise kids with a partner, but it’s a different matter altogether when you’re alone, overburdened, and under-supported.
I was talking with a single mom recently who described her day like this:
“I rush home from work, dash off to the supermarket, pick the kids up from practice, go home, and try to get dinner on the table. The arguing begins when I ask the kids to help out, and they start fighting with me. Any time I tell my oldest ‘no’ these days, she screams, ‘I hate you – you are the worst mother in the world! I wish I could live full-time with Dad!’ I explode, then she runs out of the room, slamming her bedroom door. I’m so tired of playing out this scene night after night.”
And if you have a child with a learning disability, ADHD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), you can feel isolated and hopeless without a partner to step in when you are overwhelmed and at the end of your rope. Single parents don’t have the luxury to take a break because there isn’t anyone to pick up the slack.
As a result of the stresses and strains, single parents may give in to their child’s demands from pure exhaustion and then lose it on their kids from exasperation. It might sometimes feel like you and your child have become bickering siblings rather than parent and child.
Or, as time goes by, you might look to your child as a source of support and then start to feel uncomfortable about displeasing them.
These dynamics can happen naturally over time, but they make it difficult to set limits with children and get them to respect you as the authority in your home. And a home that lacks legitimate parental authority makes life a lot more challenging in the long run.
So what does it take for a single parent to manage things successfully and raise resilient kids?
Expect your children to treat you with respect, even when they grow bigger and stronger than you. Never accept or normalize abusive behavior, and that includes verbal as well as physical abuse. You are their parent, and they need to treat you as the legitimate authority in the household.
If your child starts to argue with your decisions, you can give yourself some time to decide your answer. But once you say no, politely and calmly disengage. Do not allow yourself to get entangled in endless debates or arguments.
You can give them a chance to negotiate with you if it’s appropriate, but once you have given their request some reasonable thought, end the conversation, even if they are not happy with your decision. Your answer is now final.
Explain limits clearly and honestly, and, again, disconnect and walk away if your child continues to engage you in an argument.
It’s important to remember that children naturally fight to get what they want. Not being worn down and giving in to your child’s demands can take a superhuman effort when you never get a break. Added to this, if you’re separated or divorced, your energy may still be sapped by ongoing conflicts with your ex.
If you are separated or divorced, work at being civil with one another. Ongoing conflicts often hurt children and leave them feeling bitter, frustrated, withdrawn, and stressed. Avoid discussing these issues in front of your child so that they’re not caught in the middle of your battles with your ex.
If you have a difficult relationship with your ex, the first step is to stop contributing to the conflict. It takes two to participate, but only one to stop. If your ex criticizes you to the kids, respond by saying the following:
“Thank you for your input, but I’m comfortable with how I’m handling things.”
You don’t need to defend yourself further or fight back. This way, your children don’t have to decide which parent is right.
Kids want to be free to have good feelings toward both parents, and they’ll appreciate you if you put your energy toward maintaining good relationships with them rather than trying to prove what a jerk their other parent is.
If you are widowed or have been abandoned, get the support you need to grieve so that you can move forward. Work to get back on your own feet so that your children don’t feel they have to hold you up. If you are having difficulty getting there after some time, consider seeking professional help or a support group.
Be realistic and reasonable about what it means to be a good parent. Your kids will do well and turn out “good enough” when you allow yourself to be “fine enough” as a parent. That means accepting your limits and imperfections so that your child can come to terms with their own.
You don’t need to be, nor can you be, a “super parent”—and if you try to be one, your stress will get in the way of that goal. Be compassionate and reasonable toward yourself and your kids.
It’s also important to listen to your children when they need to express their feelings about being in a single-parent home. There is no need to defend yourself. They are not blaming you, even if it feels like they are. They might just be unhappy with the situation. Expressing their feelings and being heard by you will help them come to terms with things.
Work on building a network of caring individuals around you and your child—I can’t state enough how important this one is. If you can, share holidays and go on day trips with family and trusted friends so that they get to know your children. Encourage your children to use them for support when necessary.
Discuss with your friends any big decision you need to make. Vent your frustrations and share your joys with them. Developing strong adult relationships will help prevent you from leaning too heavily on your children for emotional support, too.
Spend time with your kids, even if it is just twenty minutes a day. Get to know the important people in their lives, such as their teachers, coaches, and friends. Create routines and rituals with your family. Whether you vacation each year in the same place, have holidays with the same extended family, or have a special evening or Sunday routine, stick with it as best you can.
These routines provide tremendous support for kids after a breakup or loss in the family. The routines also provide kids with security, continuity, and family togetherness.
Incorporate these strategies into your life to continually build and maintain your resilience. Let your parenting principles be your guide rather than your moment-to-moment emotions.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.