If you’re a single parent, you might worry about whether you can create a happy, healthy family for your children. As you long as you give your children a secure emotional base and clear boundaries for behaviour, they’ll usually be OK.
Single parenting and successful families
Here’s the good news: children raised by single parents are generally just as happy as children living with two biological parents. Children do well with a single, loving adult role model. Positive co-parenting arrangements are also very good for children.
Whether you’re a single parent or partnered, if you spend time with your child, he’s more likely to be happy and mentally healthy. It’s about letting your child know you’re interested in his life. And this can be as simple as having fun in the backyard, reading stories and doing things in the community together.
Successful parents in all types of households:
- feel confident about parenting most of the time
- are concerned about being good parents
- make good use of family networks.
Children can be frightened by the strong emotions that go along with separation. They need to hear that both parents love them and that the separation isn’t their fault. Try to explain what’s happening in terms your child can understand. For example, ‘Mum and I won’t be living together, but we both love you and want to see you whenever we can’.
Single parents: building positive relationships with your child
When parents separate, children still need exactly what they needed before – a secure emotional base, routine, protection, encouragement to learn, and the support of a trusting, loving parent.
As a single parent, especially in the early days, it might feel harder to show the warmth and encouragement that your child needs. So how can you keep showing her you care?
- Make the most of everyday moments. Quality time with your child can happen anytime and anywhere. You can chat on the way to child care, kindergarten or school. You can talk at dinner instead of watching TV. Try playing word games on the bus, having a singalong in the car or telling funny stories at bedtime.
- Be interested. Talk about your child’s favourite things, from sport to music to books to how things work. Get him to show you how to play his favourite board or computer game.
- Pay positive attention. Smile, laugh and hug your child as often as you can. Show her that you’re happy to see her when you greet her in the morning and when she comes home from child care, kindergarten or school.
- Make one-on-one time. When you can, put aside some regular time alone with each child. It could be a book before bed, a walk to a café or a game with an older child after the younger ones are asleep. Try a special outing with a younger child while older siblings are at school.
- Praise your child for the way he’s coping. For example, you might say ‘I’m really proud of how you talked to me about how you’re feeling’.
Encouraging good behaviour when you’re a single parent
Clear rules and boundaries give children a sense of safety and security.
But it’s hard to be consistent with rules and boundaries when you’re on your own, especially if you’re tired and stressed, or if your child’s behaviour is challenging.
It’s quite likely that you’ll see some challenging behaviour in times of change and stress. For example, some children might go back to doing things they’ve grown out of, like bedwetting, baby talking, not sleeping, not eating or throwing tantrums. Your child might also be in a bad mood and argue more often.
Below are some ideas for encouraging good behaviour and handling challenging behaviour when you’re a single parent. And if challenging behaviour doesn’t sort itself out in a few weeks, you can also try talking to a child health professional, like your GP or child and family health nurse.
Encourage your child to put angry or frustrated feelings into words, and show her that you’re listening. You can acknowledge these feelings without accepting inappropriate behaviour. For example, ‘I can see you’re feeling really angry – but shouting at me is not OK. Let’s take a few deep breaths together and then talk about what’s going on’.
Create clear rules
Let your child know, clearly and simply, the family rules that apply when he’s in your care. It’s OK if your rules are different from your former partner’s – children can learn that different people have different rules.
Agreeing on some rules at a family meeting can be a good first step. This gives everyone a chance to join in, which makes it more likely that your child will follow the rules.
Try to be consistent
Keep reinforcing the limits and behaviour you encouraged before your separation. Stick to your rules as much as possible, even if your child pushes back. You might feel upset if you can’t always be as consistent as you’d like to be. Just remind yourself to be calm. Work on not giving in next time.
Discipline: choose your battles
Dealing with discipline issues can be especially hard when you’re parenting alone. It can help to choose your battles. Before you get irritated, ask yourself if it really matters. For example, you might feel cranky if your pre-schooler draws on her sister’s face with markers. But as long as the marker washes off, does it really matter?
If you let the little things go, you’ll have more energy to act calmly when you have to deal with important issues like safety or wellbeing.
Single parenting under pressure
Single parenting can sometimes mean parenting under pressure. When you’re feeling stressed, you might end up being too hard or too soft with your child.
If you find yourself being too hard – for example, shouting at your child or putting him in his room for too long – try not to get too upset with yourself. Instead, think about how you could handle the situation better next time.
If you’re worried you might hurt your child, call Lifeline on 131 114 or call a parenting helpline.
It’s easy to be too soft with your child, especially if giving in gives you a bit of peace. You might also feel reluctant to discipline your child, thinking that she’s been through enough. But dealing with behaviour issues as they happen avoids problems later. It also teaches your child about acceptable and appropriate behaviour.
As a single parent, your positive attitude, strength and determination give your child an example that lasts for life. You show your child that you can keep going, even when things are difficult. But no parent is perfect, so don’t be too hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Handling your feelings and grown-up issues
Your child is bound to see you feeling sad, angry or upset when major life changes happen. That’s normal in all families. It’s important to let your child know that you love him and that your negative feelings are not about him. Reassure your child that things will get better.
If you feel your child is old enough to understand, try being honest about what’s bothering you without going into detail. For example, ‘I had a bad day at work today. I’m in a bit of a grumpy mood’, or ‘I’m sorry I made a mistake’. Expressing your feelings also gives children permission to express their own.
As a general rule, try to keep grown-up issues out of discussions with your child. Some adult problems – like financial concerns, infidelity or conflict with a former partner – can make children feel very anxious. Use your own adult support networks, and talk things over with other adults. Calling a helpline can also help.
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