Becoming a single parent is a big adjustment. It can be challenging to raise a child as a single mother or father, but also rewarding. You are likely to have many questions as you adjust to becoming a single parent. How can you manage on one income? Where can you find help and support when you need it? How can you create a positive environment for your child while taking care of your own needs?
As you look for answers, remember that you are not alone. More than 1 in 4 households in the U.S. are headed by a single mother or father. Whether you’ve become a single parent by chance or by choice, this article has tips on how to help your child thrive.
Being a single parent is different for everyone. You may have chosen to become a single parent, or you may have had to take on the role because of a separation or divorce or the death of your partner. Your unique circumstances will affect how you feel about your new role.
If you have been trying for a long time to have or adopt a child on your own, you may feel overjoyed that you finally have become a parent. You may have had time to take steps that will help with the transition, such as building a support system, adjusting your budget, or preparing your home for a new family member. But you may still have worries or concerns about how you will cope, especially if raising a child is more challenging than you had expected.
If you have become a single parent unexpectedly, after becoming divorced or widowed, you may be grieving for a lost relationship as you plan for a different type of life for your child than you had expected. You may feel complex emotions that include shock, anger, guilt, loneliness, and fears for you or your family’s future. If you have left a difficult or high-conflict marriage, you may also feel relief that your child is living in a calmer environment that may be much healthier in the long run.
All of these feelings are normal and very common. Any painful emotions are likely to become less intense as you adjust to your new circumstances. In the meantime, try to be patient with yourself. Keep in mind that even in households with two adults, many parents at times feel lonely or overwhelmed or wonder how they will cope with all the stress.
Adjusting to becoming a single parent, whether single parenthood was planned or unexpected, can be a challenge, especially when it feels as though there’s a lack of support in your community. But you might be pleasantly surprised at the resources that can make the transition to single parenthood easier.
Ask for help. Let friends, relatives, and others know what would make your life easier. Ask them for help with specific tasks, such as picking up or dropping off your child at school or appointments, helping at home, or running errands.
Try to make time for yourself every day. You may need to give your child a lot of extra support, but your needs are important, too. And you’ll be able to provide better care if you take care of yourself. Try to make time each day for activities that leave you feeling refreshed. Spending as little as 15 or 20 minutes reading a magazine or listening to your favorite music can make a big difference.
Join a single-parent support group. Support groups give you a chance to be with people who understand what you are going through and who can offer ideas, support, and advice. You can find groups for single parents through national organizations with local chapters, such as Parents Without Partners, or through community groups or houses of worship.
Consider starting a single-parents group if you can’t find one near you. Spread the word on social media or post a flyer at your child’s school.
Find ways to build your confidence. Remember that children can do well in many kinds of single-parent families, and try to avoid comparing yours to others. Also note, experts agree that children from single-parent homes can grow up to be as happy and well-adjusted as those from two-parent families.
Share what you are feeling with trusted friends, family members, or colleagues. Sometimes all you need is for someone to listen to help make you feel better.
Use resources offered by your employer. Check with your manager or human resources (HR) department if you aren’t sure what programs are available. You might find or start a support group for employees who are also single parents.
Consider counseling if you are going through a difficult time. Adjusting to single parenthood can be hard, and you may find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional. Your health care provider can give you a referral.
How a child reacts to living in a single-parent family depends on his or her age and other factors. Very young children typically have the easiest time adjusting because they have fewer or no memories of living with two parents, research has found. Teenagers often have the greatest difficulty. In most cases, they not only have spent more time with two parents, but they also have more complex questions and concerns about what happened.
Children of almost any age may feel guilt, anger, confusion, embarrassment, or other painful emotions about the change in your family. If a single-parent household has resulted from a divorce or separation, they may also hope that their parents will get back together. If you have concerns about whether your child’s behavior is normal, talk with a professional who can help you evaluate the situation. Even as you notice smaller behavioral changes, seeking help can be beneficial to start conversations about your child’s concerns before behavioral changes have a chance to become more significant. Both your child’s medical doctor and a counselor can be helpful to consult.
Here are some ways to help your child adjust:
Spend special time together. Make a point of just being together, whether playing together or preparing a meal. And don’t forget to give your child extra hugs.
Make time for fun. You and your child may enjoy doing chores or talking about homework together, but make sure you have fun, too. Make popcorn and watch a funny movie. Save time for your child’s favorite family leisure activity, like making a big Sunday breakfast. If you have a tight schedule, ask your child, “What’s something fun that we could do in 10 minutes?”
Tell your child that you are also adjusting to being a single-parent family. Be sure that they know that you understand how hard this may be for them, too, and allow them to share their feelings. Keep in mind, the way they express their feelings may be painful for you to hear. Be patient as you and your child(ren) are all still learning how you feel, so expression of those feelings may be raw, unrefined, and blunt. Let them know that you at times feel sad, too, if your single-parent household has resulted from a change that’s painful for both of you.
Let your child be a child. Children may feel overwhelmed if asked to do too much at home. Your child may be able handle a few more tasks, but don’t ask them to take on adult responsibilities or the role of an absent parent.
Read books about single-parent families. Your child may find it comforting if you read books about children in similar situations. A good picture book is Two Homes, by Claire Masurel and Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick). For children with absent fathers, try Do I Have a Daddy? A Story About a Single-Parent Child, by Jeanne Warren Lindsay and Jami Moffett (Morning Glory Press). Why Don’t I Have a Daddy? A Story of Donor Conception, by George Anne Clay and Lisa Krebs (AuthorHouse) and I Wished for You: An Adoption Story, by Marianne Richmond (Sourcebooks) are for children of single mothers by choice. A librarian can recommend books for children whose parents have died, gone to prison, or left under unusual circumstances.
Review your child care arrangements. It’s always important to have a back-up plan for what you’ll do if your usual caregiver isn’t available. This is especially important if you don’t have a partner who can pitch in during some emergencies.
Try to put off making big or sudden changes. Adjusting to a new family constellation takes time. Delay big changes in your child’s life if possible, like enrolling them in a new school or moving to a new community. To help your child adjust to changes, keep discussions about the changes that have happened open. Also discuss changes that will happen soon or perhaps may happen in time—this will not only help them adjust ahead of time to changes, but it can also give you a heads up on what concerns they have about those changes, and therefore help you support them in that change.
Help your child find a mentor. Think about whether your child might benefit from having a role model of the same gender as the absent parent. If so, try to find a trusted adult friend or relative who might like to spend more time with them. Invite the person over to share a meal or play a board game or to attend a school play or soccer game. If you don’t have anyone nearby, get in touch with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
If your child has another parent who wants to stay involved, help the two of them maintain a relationship. A child will benefit from having ties to both parents unless there’s a risk of danger. Avoid involving your child in your conflicts with a former partner. Keep the other parent informed about school events, grades, and other things going on in your child’s life.
Watch for changes that could mean your child is having trouble adjusting. Younger children may return to behaviors they’d outgrown, like thumb sucking, whining, or being clingy. Older children may “act out” at home or school by fighting with friends or getting lower grades. Seek advice from the school counselor or a pediatrician if your child seems to be having difficulty adjusting.