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The Challenges of Single Parenthood

These are some of the issues you may experience:

Supporting Your Family

Unless you are receiving alimony and/or child support from an ex-spouse, you are probably the sole source of support for your child. And that can create stress. You and your youngster may be living on less money than when you were married and will need to do some belt-tightening. Some working mothers volunteer to work overtime at their jobs, or take on a second part-time job, in order to make ends meet. Until you find a job that can provide some financial security, economics can be the overriding concern in your life.

This means that your school-age child may see less of you and have less money to buy things he was accustomed to having. That can stress your rela­tionship with him and can add to his resentment of you for getting divorced. Make sure he understands your economic realities and that you need to work more than you would like. Reassure him that even when you are away from him, you think about him. A routine after-school phone call to him from work may ease the distance he feels between you. 

Task Overload

A single parent's responsibilities certainly do not stop the moment work ends each day. You may have what seems like a full day's worth of tasks awaiting you at home—from cooking dinner to doing laundry to helping your child with homework. Although these same obligations are faced by working mothers who are married, a single parent has to face these responsibilities alone, with­out the helping hand of a husband.

For that reason, many single parents feel chronically fatigued. They often feel physically and emotionally exhausted and find themselves yelling more at their children. As their youngsters move through middle childhood and nor­mally become more opinionated and challenging of their parents' points of view, more arguments may develop.

Unless single parents set aside some down time to rest and recuperate, they can experience burnout and depression, feeling hopeless and helpless about trying to transform their lives into something more manageable. Having a lit­tle emotional support or help around the house from another adult can go a long way toward helping you to cope.

Reduced Time and Energy for Personal Pursuits

Single parents often feel they have no time for themselves, whether it is to ex­ercise at the gym or to have dinner with friends. Even if they can find time for these individual pursuits, they may be so tired that they have no energy for them. Being deprived of sleep will take a toll on anyone, parent or child. Some­times the best that you can do for yourself and your child is to get more sleep each night.

For some single parents, during or after the divorce, their lack of energy is dramatic and part of a more serious depression. Persistent sadness, irritabil­ity, difficulty sleeping, and weight gain or loss are all signs of depression. A de­pressed parent has much less to offer a child. If you are depressed, speak to your physician or a mental-health professional.

When Children Become Burdens

Single parents sometimes begin to perceive the responsibilities of child-raising as overwhelming. Even the most routine events in their child's life—carpooling, events at school, or normal oppositional behavior—become burdens for parents struggling to squeeze everything into their day. Single parents ex­perience a great deal of tension and sometimes guilt that comes with not being able to attend to all of their child's needs or to provide all of the opportunities they wish their child to have. At the extreme, these parents feel they can't deal with their children anymore. They may resort to physical pun­ishment and even become abusive if they are pushed too far. Or they may give up altogether and agree too easily to their children's demands. When possible, they may need to turn over more of the child-raising responsibilities to the youngsters' other parent and perhaps get some professional counseling to help cope better. 


Single parents need to make sure their youngsters are cared for appropriately when they are at work. For middle-years children, many options are available, from commercial childcare centers to after-school programs sponsored by community organizations like YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs. Babysitters can also give single parents a break to pursue their own interests for a few hours a week. Sometimes employers or various programs will pay part of the cost of childcare for working parents.

Decreased Involvement with the Noncustodial Parent

If you are the primary caretaker of your child, you might find that your ex-spouse has gradually decreased his contact with your youngster. After about the first year following a divorce, many fathers stop seeing their children on a regular basis—and sometimes altogether. That increases the pressure on sin­gle mothers and interferes with the child's long-term adjustment to the di­vorce.

Fathers drop out of parenting for a number of reasons. Since they are no longer in the house, they may feel they have become less important and influential in their children's lives. They may become so dissatisfied with the non­custodial role that, out of frustration or anger, they may decide to give up parenting altogether. In some cases fathers may abandon their fathering responsibilities because they can no longer afford child support. Sometimes they do it in order to avoid paying child support. Or they might have remar­ried and, in starting a new life, feel they have less time—or no time—to devote to the children of their former marriage. Some fathers feel unwelcome and struggle with how to proceed in developing a separate relationship with their child.

If you are a noncustodial parent, you should remain actively involved in your children's life. In general, youngsters from divorced families who main­tain a relationship with both parents tend to be better adjusted than those who have contact with only one parent.

How much time should you spend with your child? As much as possible, given your living arrangements. If you live close to your youngster, maintain regular contact, preferably both during the week and on weekends. It is a good idea to have your child spend at least one night a week at your home in order to give him a sense of his place in your life. This avoids you (the noncustodial parent) developing into a "good time pal" who only visits him to have fun. It also enables him to receive guidance and regular discipline from you.

If you don't live near your child, you need to maintain regular contact via telephone calls, and you should plan visits for extended periods of time (that is, weekends and holidays) so that you both have the chance to stay intimate. Children can accept and adjust to these schedules if they are given appropri­ate explanations, and if they perceive that they are still important to the non­custodial parent.

Intensified Involvement with the Custodial Parent

Particularly if the noncustodial parent begins playing a smaller role in the child's life, the parent he lives with may develop even stronger ties to the youngster by becoming more emotionally involved and perhaps even overde-pendent. Sometimes this intensified relationship can be a positive influence upon the child, provided it remains within reasonable bounds and allows the child to pursue friendships and activities outside the home. It can become harmful, however, if the youngster assumes too much of an adult role in the family and therefore gives up his own separate life and privacy for the sake of the parent. This may happen if the single parent asks him to take on more re­sponsibilities around the house or to become the parent's confidant. If parent and child become too closely enmeshed, perhaps because both are lonely in the aftermath of the divorce, their relationship can become so intense that other relationships cannot develop for either of them. At the same time, it may become harder for the parent to maintain authority, even over simple matters like what time the child should go to bed.

While a close relationship with your child is encouraged, avoid the situation in which you are virtually spending all your free time together. Your child is not an adult friend. Both of you need your own friends and outside interests. In some cases, when parent and child have become closely intertwined, jeal­ousy and resentment can surface when one of them develops other relation­ships—for instance, the daughter who, as an adolescent, finds a boyfriend and leaves her mother home alone on Saturday nights. Such closeness can be con­fining.

Changes in Children's Behavior

A child's difficult behavior in the aftermath of his parents' separation tends to be temporary and will probably diminish as the crisis of divorce subsides. However, there are a number of troublesome behavioral patterns that, if per­sistent, are signs of more serious problems. Boys and girls in middle childhood often respond differently in these situations as they adjust to living in a single-parent household. For example, boys may become very aggressive after their father moves out, making it difficult for their mother to assert her au­thority.

In this situation mothers need to work hard to maintain their authority as soon as this behavior becomes apparent, or matters could get out of control as the child's aggressiveness escalates. At the same time, fathers need to be informed of the child's misbehavior and should support the ex-spouse's position as an authority figure. A phone call or a face-to-face conversation can of­ten be part of this process. Fathers, however, should not be called in to rescue their ex-wives, since this will tend to undermine the mother's authority posi­tion and could even cause additional misbehavior by the child as a way of forc­ing more contact with his father.

Occasionally, boys will develop some of the departed father's behavior and assume a husband-like relationship with the mother. They may begin to comment on the mother's appearance, try to offer financial advice, become jealous if she starts to date, and otherwise attempt to assume an adult role in the fam­ily. Girls, by contrast, tend to become more reserved and withdrawn as their response to the changing family structure. They also sometimes assume a ma­ternal role in relation to their mother and siblings. An eleven- or twelve-year-old girl may actually run the household while her mother is working, which can rob her of her childhood while creating an unhealthy relationship between her and her siblings. If the girl is living with her father, she might also develop some of the departed mother's behavior and function as a "wife" to her father. These are not healthy patterns.

To reduce the stress on an older daughter, involve the grandparents and ex­tended family in helping out; alternatively, when financially feasible, hire a part-time housekeeper to assume some of the household responsibilities. The younger children in the family can also begin taking responsibility for more chores.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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