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Emotional Hygiene for Single Mothers

Strategies for hardworking moms seeking emotional well-being

Single moms are responsible for raising 22 million children in the United States. Many of these mothers are single due to a dissolved partnership, death of a partner, or another difficult circumstance whose psychological costs impact their families. Even single moms who don’t grapple with grief, loneliness, guilt, abandonment, or trauma bear the heavy burden of being the primary parent. A single mother’s family builds its psychological health on her emotional well-being, yet these moms are often so busy attending to their kids’ needs that they overlook their own emotional needs.

Single moms aren’t alone in this respect. In his articles, books, and widely viewed TED Talk, Guy Winch makes the compelling case that, from an early age, we are taught to attend to our physical injuries—think of a child looking for a bandage—but not our psychological injuries.

In his research, Winch stresses the importance of paying attention to, and healing, these wounds. The good news is that “emotional hygiene”—a term coined by the Dalai Lama to describe the action of getting rid of disturbing emotions—is attainable to all, including single moms.

Five steps toward emotional hygiene

Winch recommends that we put together an emotional first-aid kit for paying attention to, and healing, psychological injuries. He offers five steps toward emotional hygiene, which I believe are particularly important for single moms:

  1. Pay attention to emotional pain: If you feel yourself hurting for more than a few days, take notice and resolve to treat your psychological wound. Don’t numb or ignore your pain!
  2. Stop emotional bleeding: Identify negative cycles—when failure leads to lack of confidence and then to helplessness, for example—and work to address them.
  3. Protect self-esteem: Monitor your self-esteem, boost it when it’s low, and avoid negative self-talk.
  4. Battle negative thinking: Learn to avoid the habit of ruminating on negative events.
  5. Become informed about the impact of psychological wounds: Seek information and support that is relevant to your experience.

All five recommendations are important, but the way in which you approach each step will be unique to your situation and personality. When you design an emotional toolkit for yourself, the goal of well-being is well within your reach.

As someone who works with and on behalf of single mothers, I can construct a scenario to illustrate how these steps might work, but every situation is unique. Single moms who left their marriages after being bullied or abused, for example, need to recognize this past pain and the wounds it created. Those who are widowed must acknowledge their grief and the scars left by the loss of their partner.

Rebuilding your self-esteem and avoiding negative thinking can stop the emotional bleeding. If you’re a single mom, focus on the amazing strength you’ve shown and the ways in which you do right by your children. Inform yourself through research, therapy, or support groups about how psychological wounds might play out in your day-to-day feelings and interactions. As moms, we think nothing of researching colic, strep, or ringworm, but when it comes to mental health, we don’t always apply similar resourcefulness.

Four useful tools for improving well-being

In the spirit of building an emotional first-aid kit, here are four additional tools that have proven effective for improving well-being:

  1. Time off. Single moms have to jam so much into a 24-hour day that often they have no time to breathe, let alone engage in self-reflection. But time off from work and relaxation are essential to our well-being. Even if it’s just a staycation, carve out some down time, preferably away from your kids. Spend some of this time thinking about where you’ve been, emotionally and psychologically. Journaling can help you get in touch with your pain and begin to stop the emotional bleeding.
  2. Optimism. Research shows that optimism enhances psychological resilience by giving us the boost we need to cope with life’s challenges. Fortunately, there are relatively simple exercises we can engage in to adopt a more optimistic mindset. For example, reflect on your accomplishments, such as what you’ve done for your children and for yourself. Write about moments when you felt proud, and avoid faulty comparisons—such as comparing yourself to someone who is 10 years further into the single-mom journey. Give yourself a pat on the back for being a superhero to your kids. A Harvard University study of 70,000 women reveals that an optimistic outlook improves health and well-being—and even lengthens life expectancy. What a wonderful gift to offer your family: increased physiological and psychological health.
  3. Adventure. One of the best ways to battle negative thinking and improve self-esteem is to plan an adventure. Getting out of your normal routine has fantastic psychological benefits, as pushing boundaries can make us feel alive and joyful. Instead of numbing out with Netflix and Facebook, plan an adventure, whether on your own or with your kids. An adventure doesn’t have to be expensive: it could simply be a treasure hunt in a local park or a hike in an unfamiliar location. Fun in new surroundings will help get you out of the rut of negative rumination, as well as showing your children another side of their hardworking mom.
  4. Nature. Many single moms zigzag between home, work, and their children’s activities, rarely taking time to enjoy nature. But it’s been proven that natural landscapes accelerate recovery from stress. Try unplugging everyone in the family and taking a hike in the mountains or a walk on the beach. Plan a weekend camping trip, or visit friends in a beautiful location. Better yet, see if you can spend time without the kids in a beautiful environment. Nature walks create positive changes in the brain and help you avoid the negative self-talk that gets in the way of emotional well-being. So step outside, breathe, and appreciate who you are and where you are going!

It’s time to close the gap between physical and emotional health. Single moms in particular need to be kind to themselves and fight feelings of guilt, loss and loneliness. I hope these tips inspire you to build a psychological first-aid kit for yourself. You deserve to enjoy emotional well-being!


Eric S. Kim, Kaitlin A. Hagan, Francine Grodstein, Dawn L. DeMeo, Immaculata De Vivo, Laura D. Kubzansky; Optimism and Cause-Specific Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol 2016 1-9. doi: 10.1093/aje/kww182