The challenges of single parenting

When I told my wife that I was writing about some research on the challenges of single parenting, she reminisced about a few times when she had to care for our children without any help from me.

Before I became a professor, I was a research and statistical consultant and took regular trips to the country of Jordan. I would leave for 3 weeks at a time, and my wife was left at home to take care of our two boys, aged 3 and 5. God bless her! She would begin each of my absences strong and determined, but eventually, she found herself falling behind on chores, feeling weary,  and “slipping” on how long the children watched television.

I can imagine how difficult it would be to be the sole provider. This life that my wife and I have is pretty cushy by comparison. If I have a social or professional opportunity, she can make sure that she is home to do the  caretaking. If she wasn’t here, I might be able to find friends to watch the children so that I could go work or play, but one can only do that so many times. Eventually, I’d have exhausted my good will, and it would be up to me to pick and choose which opportunities I could pursue, and which I’d have to let go.

If my wife wants to take a nap, or have a long workout at the gym, or needs to go to an event at the university where she works, the situation is the same. Sure, we have to juggle our schedules and strategize who picks up the kids from practices, who makes the dinner, and how we fit in time to be together as a family. But it’s almost always doable.

The challenges of single parenting
Some good lessons for single parents

Further, when one of my sons speaks or acts in a way that frustrates or annoys me – usually because it reminds me of some flaw of my own – I can “hand off” the responsibility to my wife. I can sometimes feel myself getting upset, and I can just say, “Can you take over for a little bit? I want to go upstairs for a second.” And then she will step in to cover me. Rather than say or do something that might not be representative of the kind of positive parenting I want to use, I can tag-team with my wife, and get a break to reflect and simmer down.

When you don’t have anyone else to pick up the slack, it’s all on you. I can’t even imagine how people manage the challenges of single parenting . Raising good kids, modeling my values with warmth and empathy, spending time to create intentional bonding experiences, looking for chances to praise and reward them for desirable behavior, and coupling punishments with communication and love is hard enough with a partner.

According to a study about the challenges of single parenting  [1] in 2017, single parents often make less money, have fewer emotional resources, and are more likely to feel social isolation than parents in good relationships with a partner. This combination of the everyday stresses of life + social isolation + financial strain put single parents “at high risk for emotional distress and disruptions in parenting.”

The potential consequences of this combination of challenges on the single parent usually manifest themselves in three ways:

The challenges of single parenting
An interactive guide

1) Internalizing problems – As stress builds up, and the options for handling that stress begin to dwindle, the single parent may become depressed, anxious, and less optimistic about the future. These outcomes are how adversity can be turned inward, which is why they are called internalizing problems. The single parent is stuck inside his head, feeling hopeless about the future, and that internal negativity can build, especially if he has no one to talk to about his feelings.

2) Using harsher, more coercive parenting – Positive parenting takes time and energy. Communication, understanding, and supportive instruction take time and energy. The challenges of single parenting can attack time and energy. When a single parent’s stress levels are high, and her emotional reserves are depleted, one wrong move on the part of her son or daughter can unleash a host of parenting behaviors that would not be the first choice of someone with the luxury to step back and think intentionally about how to address the situation.

3) Negative child outcomes – The children of single parents with internalizing problems, who use harsh parenting practices, can be affected in a variety of ways, including lower levels of social competence, more behavioral problems, more emotional problems, and delayed development overall.

What’s the good news???

The challenges of single parenting are daunting. A lot of my writing begins with a description of obstacles to raising well-adjusted children, but not to be a

the challenges of single parenting
SNL character Debbie Downer

Debbie Downer. Rather, I offer research like this in order to sound a warning. Your parenting makes a difference. Often, the challenges of single parents can accumulate, and affect their feeling of optimism for the future, their self-esteem, and their parental self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the feeling that you are in charge, that what you do matters, and that you have the power to change the direction of your life.

If you are a single parent, it is important to acknowledge how very difficult a job you have. If you are feeling that your life situation has affected your sense of hope, optimism, and self-efficacy, it is important for you to reflect on the specific reasons why the challenges of single parenting are so powerful, and then take the advice that I am going to offer you for specifically combatting the sources of your stress.

1.  Build up your network of social support – Even though you are tired, and pressed, it is important for you to be proactive about your social life. Contact with other adults, building on friendships to create authentic connections, and having social events to look forward to, are essential. The degree to which you feel that you have other people to talk to, and who support you, is connected with your well-being.

Since I am not a single parent, I sent this article to a friend of mine, who is a single mother, to ask her if she agreed with what I was writing. This was her response:

“You talk about social isolation and that is so very true with single parenting. It is often hard to find a healthy balance. I had to become more mindful that if I do not demonstrate healthy social skills for my child then it is very likely that he will adopt the same inability for socializing with his peers. I’m still working on this but I make an effort to be a better example.”

You are not an island. Your mental health, your self-esteem, your feeling of hope for the future, your ability to positively cope with stress, and your wherewithal to use positive parenting strategies will all benefit from some time to decompress with friends. You don’t even have to talk about your problems. You can just hang out with other people, and talk about the weather. You need to get out of the house, and out of your head, and reconnect with your adulthood!

2.  Seek out support groups, preferably run by a cognitive-behavioral therapist – A cognitive-behavioral therapist is the perfect match for combatting the kinds of negative thinking, depressive perspective, and helplessness that comprise the challenges of single parenting. While I do not dismiss the contributions that therapists from other schools of thought can be helpful to their clients, the cognitive-behavioral therapist’s approach is centered on specific, concrete strategies that can help you recenter your perspective on life and parenting. The cognitive-behavioral therapist is likely to focus on the following life skills:

  • Identifying coping strategies to help manage stress. These coping strategies [2]can help you be more proactive about looking at obstacles as problems to be solved, rather than impossibilities to be endured.
  • Challenging negative thoughts. The therapist will want to hear you express your attitudes, and then allow the group to offer alternative ways to think about your situation.
  • Providing practice with cognitive reframing. When we are overly stressed, and anxious about the future, we have a tendency to let our minds wallow in worst case scenarios. As a great
    The challenges of single parenting
    I’ve read this book many times in my life – profound

    philosopher named Krishnamurti used to teach, most of the things that we are worried about are things that we are worried might happen in the future. Notice, then, that our biggest fears are about things that haven’t happened yet. Your therapist, and the members of your support group, can help you reframe your attitudes so that you can have more self-efficacy about your life as a result.

  • Engaging you in activities to promote gratitude. Many cognitive-behavioral therapists who work with depressed clients will use focused activities to activate your feelings of gratitude, which is known to increase feelings of well-being and optimism. Activities like making lists of things for which you are grateful, journaling, and making commitments to express gratitude to others are all designed to help you weed out the small stuff from “what really matters.”

Guess what? Did you catch it? The advice was to go to a therapist who is running a support group. You can kill two birds with one stone! In your group therapy sessions, hopefully, you will get the opportunity to discuss your own challenges of single parenting, receive insights about how to cope with those challenges, get new, current experiences with feelings of gratitude and hope, and also meet new potential friends who can be a part of an expanding support group.

To all my single parents out there, I feel for ya. Your life is harder than many others. Here’s an alternative perspective: Those challenges you have to face can be a reason for having that much more satisfaction from your positive parenting. You are strong enough, if you get the support and expertise that I suggest you seek out. Your children will – one day – be so grateful that you fought the hard fight, and determined to come out on top.

[1] Taylor, Z. E., & Conger, R. D. (2017). Promoting Strengths and Resilience in Single‐Mother Families. Child Development, 88(2), 350-358.
[2] Taylor, Z. E., Larsen-Rife, D., Conger, R. D., Widaman, K. F., & Cutrona, C. E. (2010). Life stress, maternal optimism, and adolescent competence in single mother, African American families. Journal of family psychology, 24(4), 468.



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