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 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 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 tips 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?” It’s okay and necessary to be silly and laugh aloud together.
- 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. Be as honest as possible, because it builds trust; how much you share may depend on their age, but they will appreciate your candor and will benefit more from it than untruths and made-up stories.
- Read books about single-parent families. Your child may find it comforting if you read books about children in similar situations. A librarian can recommend books for children who have lost a parent. This is time well spent for you and your child(ren), as it provides you special quiet time with your child and may provide them additional understanding.
- Get creative with childcare. Raising a child on a single income is a challenge, with the high cost of daycares, nannies, and other conventional childcare services. More affordable options are possible if you go a less traditional route. If you have space and live in a college town, for example, offer a college student housing in exchange for regular childcare. Or swap kids with other single parents so that your kids have friends to play with while the parents get time to themselves. Building that community for fun and support may also result in other childcare remedies.
- Try to put off making big or sudden changes. Adjusting to a new family situation 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 before a change, but it can also give you a heads up on what concerns they have about such a change, and therefore help you support them in that change. The more routine and the less surprises the better.
- Help your child find a mentor or role model. Think about whether your child might benefit from having a role model of the same gender as the absent parent. Most do. 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. Would this be a good time to get them involved with team sports, or dance, or scouting? You can find wonderful mentors and role models in coaches and scout leaders.
- 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 hanging out with different “friends,” fighting with others, or getting lower grades. Seek advice from the school counselor or a pediatrician if your child seems to be having difficulty adjusting. You know your children, so take action when you begin to see unhealthy patterns of behavior.
- Be consistent with rules and discipline. If your child has multiple caretakers, such as another parent, grandparent, or babysitter, communicate clearly on how discipline will be handled. When a child realizes that certain rules can be bent with certain people, he/she will use it to their advantage, causing additional issues with limits, behavior, and discipline down the road. The key is consistency at home and otherwise.
Being a single parent is a challenging responsibility to take on. Without the help of a partner to fall back on, single parents have so much more to do. However, studies show that growing up in a single-parent home does not have a negative effect on achievement in school. As long as the family home is a stable and safe environment, kids are able to excel and do well in life. You’ve suffered the worst loss possible, but so have your children and they need you more than ever. Follow these tips to take care of yourself and be the best parent possible for your children.