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Changes in the Family: Impact on Child Relationships

Family life becomes more demanding when one parent takes all responsibility.

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 becomes much more demanding when one parent shoulders the responsibilities of the household. 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 kids have about their relationships with both present and absent parents create dynamics that affects their capacity to trust. For example, hostility and anxiety of children during divorce also generates very different kinds of emotions than the feelings of grief and resentment a child may feel when a parent dies that may affect the relationships of that child with members of the opposite sex positively or negatively. In both of these situations, however, experiences of abandonment and loneliness may interfere with a child’s ability to trust and invest in relationships.

In divorce, children often feel torn between their allegiances. Many struggle to balance or negotiate a connection with both parents. Parents are often unaware of or unable to manage the strain that their marital plight places upon their children. While the circumstances of divorce may disable coordinating parental guidance of relationships and sex education, parents need to communicate clearly about specific relational and sexual needs that their children are confronting for their overall well-being.

The sometimes reactive and changing moods of teens, especially in families of divorce or with children whose parents have died, can set parents into a tailspin. It’s helpful to keep in mind that many adolescent manage their angst and defy parents even in the most stable homes. When intense stressors occur for families, it’s understandable that emotions intensify that can be particularly overwhelming for single parents. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that for children, the dissolution of the family or home means dissolving both critical established relationships and parts of their very life. 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 demonstrable intimacy and love between their own parents, this discussion may feel remote, yet the demonstration of accessible love for them becomes the foundation for learning lessons of how the power of love can overcome pain and loss. Building blocks for intimacy and love 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, and in managing the struggles of emotions and communication.

To appreciate the powerful impact that a single parent can have, consider how the feelings of one mother affected her son when single parenting emerged not from the struggles of divorce but of an absent parent (Note details are changed to protect confidentiality):

Lou, a handsome, young man in his early twenties came to see me in therapy because of erectile dysfunction. A competitive kick-boxer, Lou had created a macho public persona that many women found attractive; however, Lou felt deep feelings of inadequacy that led him to overcompensate in school and work. Lou was a classic perfectionist, never letting up on himself. He knew that a medication for erectile dysfunction wouldn’t help him because he realized that the source of his difficulty was primarily emotional.

Lou’s mother became pregnant with him after being raped. Throughout his early life, sexuality was treated as a harmful act, and men were identified as hurtful and aggressive perpetrators. The lesson that Lou learned from the derogatory remarks about sexuality and his parents was that sex was something that men pursued to which women, at best, reluctantly agreed. Lou’s feelings about sexuality conflicted and tormented him. It did not take long in therapy to explain how his inner conflict about sex rendered him impotent. Although he had never understood how his home life affected his views about relationships, 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.” Regardless of the positive messages he received from women, he didn’t think 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, his negative body image because of being a man, and his doubts about intimacy. By working to understand those feelings, he recognized the origins of 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 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 image of himself, to explore what women were saying to him and feeling, over his prior conviction that these were merely token comments, to develop joys in intimate relationships.

Situations like these are indeed complicated. We can hardly 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 sexuality. 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. Additionally, by attending to our children’s relational needs and the health of our relationships with them, we can heal and learn to recognize messages that we do not want to impart.

We can also see from this story that a parent’s general attitude toward the other sex, if rooted in painful experiences, 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—and that led him to feel both condemned and guilty for being a man.

Because divorce evokes powerful emotions in parents, they may forget the impact of describing (or just feeling) negative experiences, directly and indirectly witnessed by the child regarding his or her other parent, through their own relationship with their child. Parents often rationalize that kids can distinguish between their anger and their actual beliefs. This expectation is not realistic and is irresponsible. While parents’ distress may lead them to enact in ways to exempt their own child from the rest of the gender they inadvertently 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, and because it relates to their own flesh and blood.

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 would be willing to help develop the trusting relationship that is necessary to communicate with your child about sex. A godparent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, or close friend might be a good choice. It may be very helpful to flesh out your feelings with a professional counselor so that you can provide the quality of health that you want your children to experience in their relationships.

Parents and families are critical in sex education. Their efforts to build meaningful connections with kids set the stage for understanding the relationship between sex, intimacy, and love. Modern times have reconstructed the family unit in a variety of forms, but regardless of the family’s formation, the family role remains essential in building a healthy and grounded experience for children’s relational and sexual development.

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