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The Single-Parent Family

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

A single parent is someone who is unmarried, widowed, or divorced and not remarried. The single-parent household can be headed by a mother, a father, a grandparent, an uncle, or aunt. According to the Pew Research Center, between 25 to 30 percent of children under age 18 in the U.S. live in a single-parent household. The U.S. Census reports that roughly 22 million children live with a single parent. And three times as many women, when compared with men, head these households.

The Well-Being of Children in a Single-Parent Household

Single parents should be reassured by the fact that a large number of studies find no differences between the children of single mothers and children from other types of households. One study looked into the lives of children from different kinds of households—two-parent biological, adoptive, step-father, step-mother, single-parent—and the type of household did not matter. Children’s grades, and their relationships with their siblings and their friends, were about the same across all households. In a survey of adolescents living in nine types of households, those who lived with parents who had always been single and who were being raised in multi-generational households reported the highest sense of well-being of all those surveyed.

Can children of single parents fare just as well as children of married couples?

In studies as well as many reports from children themselves, children are better off raised by a single parent as opposed to living with married parents who engage in constant conflict. Children raised by one divorced parent sometimes have better outcomes than children raised by a parent who is remarried. It is impossible to predict a child's outcome based on this one factor alone. 

Are there positives for children raised by a single parent?

Yes. Every situation involves trade-offs, and they often go unrecognized at the time. In a common refrain, the grown child of a single, working mom reported that he was glad that his mom was busy all the time. His friends, by contrast, had moms who stayed at home. These parents were hyper-involved in their lives, including their schoolwork and schedules. This overbearing participation produced problems between parent and child.

The Challenges of Single-Parent Families

Children need a safe and reliable household to flourish. Of course, it is much harder for single-parents who live with financial hardship. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that nearly 11 million people are considered working poor. The definition of working poor is an individual who spends 27 weeks or more in the workforce, this person is working or looking for work, yet their income is below the poverty level. And according to the U.S. Census, single moms are one of the most disadvantaged groups—with nearly 30 percent living in poverty. Many of these single moms cannot provide for their families as they often have lower-paying jobs.

Will my worries about finances impede my parenting?

Being the sole parent of a household may mean you are the boss, free of quarrels over money and finance. That’s great, but according to research, it costs $234,000 to raise a child. This price tag impacts the high risk of financial hardship.

I am returning to work, but I’m worried about my kids.

This should not be a source of concern or guilt, even though it often is. Children of mothers who return to work while the children are infants and toddlers, fare the same behaviorally and academically compared with children whose mothers stay home. In one study, kids from single-parent families, whose mothers worked, had better academic scores and fewer behavioral problems than did children whose mothers did not work.

Raising Kids as a Single Parent

To raise thriving children, a single parent must juggle many aspects of life, the household, work demands, finances, among many other concerns. All parents face similar obstacles, but the challenge for a single-parent is greater.

  • Set house rules with your kids.

  • Give undivided attention to each child, even a daily 10-minute one-one conversation will help.

  • Set boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.

  • Be consistent and fair, always.

  • Kids need schedules and routines (sounds boring, but it works).

  • Lower your expectations, and do away with any ideas of perfection.

  • Lose your sense of guilt, victimhood, and martyrdom.

  • Ignore judgmental people.

  • You need support through good childcare, friends, family, neighbors.

  • If possible, get along with your ex. (To do so, you need to get over yourself.)

  • Apply self-care daily, eat right, exercise, sleep, meditate. (If you do not have time, make the time.)

  • If you need therapy, a good family therapist will help.

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