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Changes in the Family: Impact on Sexual Development

Behaviors of Single and Two Parent Families

More than half the children in the United States are living in homes without two married parents. In fact, in 2013, the Pew Research Center explained that 46% of kids under 18 years of age are living with parents in their first marriage; 34% are with a single parent, 15% are with two parents, one or both of whom are remarried; and 5 % have no parents at home.

Family life can become much more demanding when one parent shoulders the whole load. Kids in single-parent families sometimes feel cheated or feel a sense of loss. Because single-parent families result from different circumstances, it is important for single parents to recognize the specific needs of their children.

The feelings your kids develop in their relationships often evolve from their experiences with you. Hostility and anxiety of children during divorce, for example, generates very different kinds of emotions than feelings of grief and resentment a child feels if a parent dies. Yet in both cases feelings of abandonment and loneliness may interfere with a child’s ability to trust and invest in deeper relationships.

In the case of divorce, children often feel torn between their allegiances, and many struggle to balance or negotiate a connection with both parents. Parents can be unaware of how much of a strain their marital plight puts on their children. It is important to keep in mind the advice given to all divorced couples: that parents should work very hard to avoid bringing children in the middle of the battle and work hard toward communicating positively and constructively with each other regarding their children’s overall well-being.

Teens’ sometimes volatile and changing moods in families of divorce can set parents into a tailspin. It may be helpful to consider that many teens in the throes of adolescent angst may defy parents even in the most stable homes. When a divorce occurs, however, such expressions may intensify. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that for children divorce means the dissolving the most basic foundation in their lives. No matter how our children act out, it will help if we can sympathize with their needs and offer reassurance about love and intimacy.

It’s true that without direct experience of intimacy and love between their own parents, this discussion may feel remote and theoretical. Building blocks for intimacy and love, at the same time, are created through our own relationship with our children and through working through discussions of appropriate loving and intimate experiences in relationships that we have with others or in relationships that exist around us.

To consider the impact that a single parent can have when not adequately monitoring feelings, consider the following example of how the intense feelings of one mother affected her son. This situation may overdramatize the dynamics, given its traumatic origins, yet it invites reflection of how less volatile situations may similarly, though more subtly, impact children because of unchecked reactions:

Lou, a handsome young man in his early twenties, came to therapy because of erectile dysfunction. A competitive kick-boxer, Lou had created a macho public persona that many women found attractive. However, he had deep feelings of inadequacy that caused him to overcompensate in school and work. Lou was a classic perfectionist, never letting up on himself. He knew that Viagra wouldn’t help him with his erectile issues because he knew the source of his dysfunction was not physical but emotional.

Lou’s mother had become pregnant with him after being raped. At home, sexuality was treated as a harmful act, and men were identified as hurtful and aggressive perpetrators. In Lou’s mind, understandably, sex was something that men needed and to which women, at best, reluctantly agreed. Lou’s feelings about sex and sexuality conflicted and tormented him. It did not take long to recognize that his inner conflict about sex rendered him impotent. Although before therapy he had never acknowledged how his home life affected him, Lou had grown up with very negative feelings about his own sexuality. He firmly believed sex was an act of violence and destruction. He saw all male bodies (including his own) as “monstrous,” “disgusting,” and “unattractive.” He didn’t even believe it was possible for a woman to experience anything sexually pleasing with a man.

Lou’s therapy required him to overcome his negative views of himself and his sexuality that he learned at home. He slowly confronted his related negative body image and his doubts about intimacy. By working to understand those feelings, he came to understand his self-loathing as a result from stories that he had internalized from what heard about men from his mother. Whether his mother knew it or not, she had impaired his relationships and sexual development both through the stories she told about his conception and through her residual distress with and contempt for men. Counseling helped Lou develop a positive self-image and the joy for intimate relationships.

Situations like these are indeed complicated. We cannot blame Lou’s mother for her problems or for the impact it had upon Lou, as she herself must have been doing her best to heal from a devastating trauma while raising an unexpected child alone. However, we can see from this story how easily pain is passed on.

Parental attitudes have a huge impact on children, whether positive or negative, conscious or unconscious. No matter what our backgrounds, we have the power as parents to help our kids gain a positive understanding of themselves and their relationships. Through doing our own work and passing on the self-love and gaining healthy perspective, we as parents can help our children avoid many unforeseen and destructive consequences that may loom down the road.

We can also see from this story that a parent’s general attitude toward the other sex can play a large role in the formation of a child’s identity and confidence. Lou’s mother’s contempt for men created within her son a feeling of self-contempt because of all that he had heard about his gender—he felt condemned and guilty for being a man.

Because divorce evokes powerful emotions in parents, they may forget the impact of describing or implying all of the opposite sex as sick, evil, disgusting, or some other negative term. They often rationalize that kids can distinguish between their anger and their actual beliefs, or one person, themselves and an entire gender. While parents may claim to exempt their own child from the rest of the gender consciously or unconsciously under attack, even a child can see the problems with such logic. Your children will remember your anger and your judgments about the opposite sex, especially because these feelings come across so much more powerfully and sincerely than what you might say in rational explanations to make them feel better.

At times when you honestly feel that your emotions are getting the better of you, find someone in your extended family who is of the child’s same gender who can support and develop the trusting relationship that is necessary to communicate with your child experientially about sexuality. A godparent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or close friend might be a good choice.

Parents and families are critical in sex education. Their behaviors and efforts to build meaningful connections set the stage for the child’s understanding of relationships. Modern times have reconstructed the family unit. Regardless of the family’s formation, the witnessing of children’s parental attitudes creates both apprehensions and confidences about relationships and sexuality.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information visit, and