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6 Steps to Setting Limits as a Solo Parent

Clinical psychologist Stephanie O'Leary helps you ditch the mommy/daddy guilt.

Normal parenting challenges can seem extra-hard when you're the only adult in the house. New York-based clinical psychologist and mother of two Stephanie O’Leary has been working with children and families for 15 years. She offers a “no-nonsense approach” to navigating the daily challenges of parenting-while-busy, and parenting solo. I stumbled upon her very useful blog while stuck at JFK airport, and spent a genuinely uplifting hour waiting to catch my flight. O’Leary sees private clients at Westchester Psychological Services, and is currently expanding her practice to include telephone- or Zoom-based parent coaching. She’s also launching an online parenting group in January, 2017. Her self-published book, Parenting in the Real World, will be available on Amazon January 18, 2016.

I caught up with O’Leary to talk about some challenges we all face when setting limits for growing children, particularly when alone in the house, and you know ... tired.

Wendy Paris: People have very different ideas about “appropriate” limits, and how to enforce them. What’s your philosophy about setting limits, generally?

Stephanie O'Leary
Source: Stephanie O'Leary

Stephanie O’Leary: My philosophy is that you need to keep in mind that you are the parent. You can take into account their feelings and preferences, certainly, but you make the call. It’s not very reassuring for kids to feel that they’re in control of decisions. They really need parents to be the heavy sometimes, even if they kick and scream and complain about it. Check in with your gut, as the parent. Check in with your kids. But then make a decision, unapologetically, that you know you can stick to.

Wendy Paris: I find this “sticking to rules” a problem. I’ll make a decision, or set a new rule, like, “You have to practice handwriting for 10 minutes every night.” We do it, then he goes to his dad’s, and I’m off our routine. There’s not a daily consistency, so I forget. Or sometimes he’s too tired. Or sometimes it’s late, and I insisted we go visit a friend and swing on the rings at the beach, and then we’re both too tired to follow my handwriting rule.

SO: It doesn’t have to be forever.

You draw a line in the sand, not on the hardwood floor with a Sharpie.

It’s the limit for that day. It doesn’t mean it will be the same limit on Saturday. You want to confidently set a limit when you can keep it. Give your kids some credit for knowing there are some things we always do or don’t do: we don’t hit each other; they’re expected to take their lunch box out of their bag. But if one day, you notice it’s 9 o’clock, and the lunch box is still in the bag, you don’t wake him up. As a parent, you’re going to take that information and use it to shape further expectations. Either the lunchbox isn’t that important, or you need to make a better effort to follow up on this. Maybe you put a Post-it note on the door, or write it on a white board as a reminder for everybody.

Wendy Paris: I can’t tell how much these limit-setting challenges are things all parents deal with, and how much the problems come from living alone, as a divorced parent, with a child who is sometimes in another house.

SO: These limit-setting challenges are universal, even among married parents. And it’s complicated when you’re divorced because there are two different households and you’re parenting solo. But this lack of consistency with limits isn’t only a major issue for parents who are divorced; it’s an issue for many parents. In a married family, two parents may not have the same limits. Or, the dad may be out of the house, working 70 hours a week. Then he shows up on Saturday, and the rules go out the window, and the mom feels frustrated and not supported.

When married parents are on the same page, that is definitely easier. It builds confidence in your decisions because you have someone in your corner, another parent backing you up, who is in the house with you. Setting limits just sucks. Kids are upset, and very persistent and frustrating. A spouse in your corner helps you build your confidence.

Wendy Paris: Okay, but how can parents build confidence without a spouse in their corner?

SO: I talk to parents a lot about being unapologetic when they’re setting limits. There’s often that little voice inside your head, going, “What are you doing? How do you know this is the right thing to do? Maybe it’s not.” That voice in your head can sabotage your confidence. Whatever you’ve decided to do, commit to it. Follow through with it, and accept that your child may be disappointed. Commitment itself builds confidence. You can say to your child, “I know this stinks, but this is Mommy’s decision.” Say it firmly and with conviction. As that saying goes, “Fake it ’til you make it.” Something biologically happens in your brain when you make a commitment and stand by it firmly. That commitment, and delivering your decision without apology builds confidence. When it works, that builds more confidence rather quickly.

Wendy Paris: What are the main areas in which parents typically have trouble setting limits?

SO: Screen time is a huge one. It’s more of an issue when you’re a single parent, because the screen can be a lovely babysitter, and then it feels like a slippery slope from an educational game to something you don’t want your children watching.

Setting limits around sleep and bedtime is difficult for many parents. The other area that I see challenges with is around boundaries in the household. Sleeping in your bed or in my bed? I want to eat dinner in front of the TV instead of at the table. Playing with their Legos at the bottom of the stairs. Kids test the limits—walking on the arm of the house, playing with a toy in an unsafe way. Sometimes issues with household boundaries are about kids testing the limits, but other times it’s about figuring out how to use their body, and sometimes it’s about learning appropriate behavior in a space.

It can be hard to set those limits because you don’t want the argument as the parent. A fourth issue is about personal responsibility, things like chores and homework. Especially for single parents, it’s like a whole other job to manage that.

Wendy Paris: Can you give some quick advice on setting limits on these hot issues, particularly as the only parent in the house?

SO: Yes!

Six steps for setting limits as a solo parent:

1. Set limits on screen time together.

Have a conversation as a family, when things are calm, not at 10 pm at night. You go into the conversation with a gut sense of what you’re comfortable with, and then take feedback from your kids. My kids have set a stronger expectation than I would about some things. Sometimes they’ll serve themselves less ice cream than I would have. Then you decide, as the parent, what the limits are. You might decide on 10 minutes a day, or as soon as the homework is done. Once you’ve decided, it still has to be a line in the sand. You might say 60 minutes a day. Then you have a fever on a Saturday. Your kids going to watch six hours. That happens sometimes.

2. Don’t expect too much from yourself.

If you feel that your kid is rolling you over, you’re derailed and off the tracks, then you’ve let it go too far. But ask yourself if it’s just Mommy guilt, or if you really feel that your child needs more attention. If he’s spending too much time on YouTube, shake it up a little bit. The next day, sit and have a three-minute conversation.

If we can give our kids 12 minutes of undivided attention a day, where they can talk about what they want to talk about, and lead the conversation, that’s really a lot. That can really go a long way.

We set the expectations too high for ourselves. It’s not Little House on the Prairie. And when mom’s did spend all that time with their kids, they were doing chores. Give your child the luxury of 12 minutes of undivided attention, and then everyone can have their life.

3. Protect them from Internet awfulness.

You have to make sure what they’re looking at is safe. I use a software product called NetNanny that monitors the content my kids can access on their laptop, iPad and the computer in the kitchen. That doesn’t limit the time, but at least I know that if I’m using the screen as a babysitter, my kids won’t stumble upon something inappropriate. Even if your child doesn’t search for it, he can stumble upon it. When you’re on YouTube, 100,000 things pop up on the side. My son was looking at deep sea animals at my dad’s, which went to animals with genetic mutations, and then it went to children with genetic mutations. It was really graphic content. My dad said to me, “We need to get that security thing that you have on your computers.” The Internet can be aggressive. It’s coming at our kids.

4. Set sleep boundaries for your family.

If having your child in your bed means you don’t sleep, then your child can’t sleep in your bed. If it works in your family, then own it and move on. If kids start asking to stay up later, take a pretty firm stance, especially on school nights. They can’t make up for those hours of missed sleep.

5. Be a coach.

When it comes to household boundaries, like not walking on the arm of the couch, tell them what’s appropriate. Give them one reminder. Then the third time they do it, in the same sitting, enforce a natural consequence. The next day, you tell them again. They should theoretically need fewer reminders as time goes on. Make the consequence related and appropriate. If they’re walking on the coach, you can say, “You can’t be on the couch the rest of the day.”

6. Make it easy on them.

The simplest way to help kids remember the rules is to make a list and put it somewhere in the house. It could be on a white board, or just a sheet of paper of the fridge. You can make a list of chores and routines when they’re young, as soon as they go to school. They’re not too old for a list until they can remember and follow through without the reminder.

We can always use lists. I need a list. I make it myself. And I wish I got a sticker every time I do something on it.

Wendy Paris: I need lists, too. And I also want smiley face stickers, and gold stars. Thank you for these great tips. I look forward to more!


Read more about blended families on my new "divorce wellness" website, You can also order Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well.

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