Single Parenting

Single parents face additional challenges as they seek to be both father and mother to their children. Pediatricians can assist single parents by providing helpful information on parenting, as well as parental “dating guidelines” that will help decrease children’s stress.

BACKGROUND

Statistics about the prevalence of single-parent families (per the U.S. Census Bureau, 2013):

  • 12+ million families are headed by single parents; 83% are single-mother families, and 17% are single-father families.
  • ≈ 40% of children are born to unwed mothers.
  • ≈ 25%+ of children are being raised without a father (45% of these children live below the poverty line).

Children growing up in single-parent homes have elevated risk of cognitive, emotional, and social problems.

PROMOTING STRONG, STABLE FAMILIES

Health professionals should be especially understanding and supportive of single parents, as they tend to have higher stress levels, be more financially insecure, and have less time to spend with their children than married parents.

Single parents can create a more stable environment for their children by striving to reduce future stressful changes.

The quantity of difficult transitions (such as multiple parental cohabitations, remarriages, and divorces) that a child experiences directly correlates to the risk of behavioral and emotional problems in adolescence and young adulthood.(1)

  • Serial cohabitating relationships of parents are especially emotionally difficult for their children.
  • The remarriage of a parent followed by another divorce is also very stressful to children.

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

Single parents (compared to continuous married parents) are more likely to (1):

  • Be less emotionally supportive toward their children
  • Provide less supervision
  • Have fewer rules yet be more inconsistent in delivering discipline and administer discipline more harshly
  • Have higher levels of conflict with their children

Even after controlling for variables like family income, research shows that children from single-parent homes are more likely to have cognitive, emotional, and social problems.

  • Children raised by single parents are at least twice as likely as their counterparts raised in a two-parent home to have(2):
  • Psychiatric illness in childhood
  • Suicide attempts
  • Alcohol-related disease
  • Narcotics-related disease

 

More than half of prison inmates did not grow up with both parents in the home.(3)

THE CONVERSATION

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This timing of the conversation is dependent on the parent. Ideally, this could become part of a yearly discussion. 

This conversation is with the parent of the child.

Physicians often avoid discussing family structure with their patients, yet the makeup of the family directly affects the well-being of children. There are several ways to introduce this topic, but the easiest might be to simply ask the parent or verbal child, “Who lives at home with you?” A follow-up question might be, “Does anyone else come to visit frequently or spend the night?” If the physician identifies the parent as a single parent, consider providing the following information to help the parent optimize the children’s health.

Avoid “parentification” of your children.

  • With the absence of a partner, it may be tempting to treat one of your children like a surrogate spouse or peer, using them for emotional support or even seeking counsel from them. However, a child does not have the emotional capacity to substitute for an adult partner, and this is an inappropriate burden to place on a child.
  • Seek out support from adult friends, family, or your religious group. Despite your busyness, don’t isolate yourself. Model for your children the benefit of connecting with others.
  • Help your child develop an identity independent of you by not drawing them in deeply to your personal issues. Strive to have balance with meeting their needs for affection but not smothering them.

Considerations for single parents who are dating:

  • Remember children are greatly affected by parental romantic relationships and understand a new family could be formed.
  • Avoid a quick turnaround after the end of your previous relationship. When you do feel you are ready to date, move slowly in your new relationship as children will take longer to adjust.
  • Cohabiting with your boyfriend or girlfriend can be very destabilizing to your children, especially if you cohabit with successive partners.
    1. Children are more likely to sustain physical and sexual abuse when their single parent is cohabitating and eight times more likely to suffer maltreatment in any form. (4)
  • If you are moving toward marriage, take time to learn about how to create a successful blended family.
    1. Think of the challenges of creating a blended family this way: You may know how to drive a car, but driving in snow and icy conditions requires a different knowledge and skill set. Nearly all blended families have “inclement weather” to manage as they drive (especially in the first few years), so adopt the attitude of a learner.
  • Continue to spend daily quality time with your children and acknowledge their emotions about your new relationship.
  • Consider carefully if the person you are dating is good “parent material.”
  • Physical touch stimulates the bonding hormone oxytocin and actually turns off the prefrontal cortex, which is the judgment center of the brain. Avoid entering into physical relationships prior to marriage so you can effectively evaluate your new relationship.
  • Wait to proactively encourage a relationship between your children and someone you are dating until your dating relationship is serious and stable.
    1. When introducing your child to a potential new spouse, avoid physical touch while in the presence of your child.
    2. Introduce your child at a neutral space and in a casual setting, for instance, going on a picnic together at a park or at church.
    3. Introduce your child in a group setting to lessen the emotional burden for your child.
    4. Introduce your potential spouse to your family—the approval of grandparents, an aunt or uncle, or special friends will be noticed by your child and may help in the transition.
    5. Your family may notice areas of concern that you have not observed, so listen carefully to their advice and opinions.

Considerations for single parents with their opposite-sex children:

  • Seek out positive responsible members of the opposite sex who might serve as role models for your child.
  • When your child is nearing puberty, it may be helpful to ask a trusted same-sex relative to talk with them about issues regarding sexuality. Consider asking that relative to take your child through some type of sexuality education program, such as Passport2Purity.

 

Single parenting is often a challenging and lonely job so take time to encourage single parents and point out specific ways they

may be thriving in nurturing their children.
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REFERENCES

  1. Amato, PR. The impact of family formation change on the cognitive, social and emotional well-being of the next generation. Marriage and Child Wellbeing. 2005;15(2):75-96.
  2. Weitoft GR, Hjern A, Haglund B, Rosen M. Mortality, severe morbidity, and injury in children living with single parents in Sweden: a population-based study. Lancet. 2003;361(9354):289-295.
  3. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pji02.pdf. Accessed February 17, 2014.
  4. Sedlak AJ, Mettenburg J, Basena M, et al. Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4): Report to Congress. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/abuse_neglect/natl_incid/reports/natl_incid/nis4_report_congress_full_pdf_jan2010.pdf. Published 2010. Accessed March 8, 2012.