A Guide to help Youth living in a Single-Parent Family
Dipesh’s parents had been divorced for almost six months, but a lot had changed in that short time. Fifteen-year-old Dipesh and his thirty-seven-year-old mom moved out of the house they’d lived in since as long as Dipesh could remember and into a tiny apartment across town. He had to transfer to a new school at the beginning of his new academic year, And Dipesh, who had been solid A grade student until last year, was failing most of his classes. He wasn’t rebelling or anything; he just didn’t feel like doing the work anymore.
When his first report card of the new school year came in the mail, Dipesh’s mother hit the roof. “What’s the matter with you? There’s no excuse for you to be getting grades like this!” his mom said. She wasn’t used to being the disciplinarian in the family, but she was determined to do a good job as a single parent.
Dipesh shrugged. “It’s no big deal, Mom,” he said. “I’ll bring them up.
“Oh, you bet you will. And you can start tonight. You’ll have plenty of time for studying because you’re not going out for the next two weeks.”
“What? You can’t be serious!”
“Well I am. Now march up to your room, young man, and get started on your homework.”
“No way! I’m supposed to go to the game with Chirag.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” She pointed to the room.”
Dipesh grabbed his cycle keys from hall cupboard and turned towards the door. His mother blocked the way, her arms folded across her chest.
“You can’t stop me, Mom!” he said, pushing her aside and reaching for the door. She pushed him back, and he swung around and threw a punch at her face, knocking her to the floor.
Dipesh stormed out the door and left his mother lying on the floor of their tiny apartment, crying and rubbing an eye that was already beginning to swell black and blue.
Problem of Living in a Single-Parent Family
In the 1980, till Generation X, more that 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents who were married to each other. By 2020 only 50 percent could expect to spend their entire childhood in an intact family. If the current trend continues, less than half all children born today will live continuously with their own mother and father through childhood.
Single parenthood may occur because of divorce, desertion, or death or because a woman or man has a child outside of marriage. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the family situation, single parent face “too many decisions that have to be made without the consultation of another partner, too many jobs to be done by one person. . . too many tensions and frustrations that seemingly have only intermediate solutions, and too little time apart from child rearing that [can be claimed as one’s] own.”
Single parents- and their children- face monumental challenges and obstacles, some that are confronted immediately and other that develop over a longer period of time. Among these are: financial struggle as well as the child’s academic problems, behavioral problems, and sexual activity.
“For the vast majority of single mothers,” writes Whitehead, “the economic spectrum turns out to be narrow, running between precarious and desperate. Half the single mothers live below the poverty line”
Thomas Ewin Smith found that adolescent children of single mothers exhibit a lower “academic self-concept” than children living with both biological parents. Other research indicates that children from two parent families have better grades and higher academic achievement than children in one parent families. Such disparities may be the result of many factors: it is more difficult for children to concentrate on schoolwork in times of family turmoil, slipping grades may be a means of gaining attention or expressing rebellion, and single parents will often find it more difficult to monitor homework, etc.
Some youth exhibit behavioral problems in the wake of their parents’ separation and divorce. They may begin smoking and drinking. They may start missing school. They may become disrespectful to schoolteachers and leaders. Such behavior is often an expression of anger or confusion, a response to the emotional turmoil they feel-but cannot adequately express-because of their family situation.
Research suggests that divorce may also, in the long term, prompt a higher degree of sexual activity and promiscuity. Whitehead states that
girls in single-parent families are also at much greater risk for precocious sexuality, teenage pregnancy, nonmarital birth, and divorce than are girls in two-parent families.
and college student with divorced parents have been found to be more sexually active than classmates from intact homes. This is especially true of male children of divorce, who tended to favor “recreational” sex over committed relationships and were most likely to have had multiple sex partners while they are in college.
It must be stressed, however, that while adjusting to and living in a single-parent family can create complex problems and considerable challenges, it does not seal a young person’s fate. As Nicholas Zill says, “While coming from a disrupted family significantly increases a young adult’s risks of experiencing social, emotional or academic difficulties, it does not predetermine such difficulties.” The many changes and challenges of living in a single-parent family can produce a number of effects, however, that may recommend or require the attention of a caring adult.
Effects of Living in a Single-Parent Family
Whatever the circumstances leading to the establishment of a single-parent home- whether it’s the death of a parent, divorce, something else- some of the effects that are likely to be felt by a young person include shame or embarrassment, guilt, rejection, anger, insecurity and low self-esteem, and withdrawal.
Shame and embarrassment are commonly felt by teens and preteens living in a single-parent family. They may be embarrassed because of their parents’ divorce, interpreting it as an indication that there is something wrong with their family. They also may assume that they bear a degree of responsibility for their parents’ breakup. They may be embarrassed by what they consider inappropriate conduct on the part of their parents following the divorce (such as Dad dating a younger woman) or by the abrupt changes in their style of living (such as moving into a apartment with Mom).
When the establishment of a single-parent family follows a divorce, many youth are afflicted by guilt. Ronald P. Hutchcraft writes:
Research shows that children of divorce tend to assume blame, or at least part of the blame, for the failure of [their parents’] relationship. They say,
Well, maybe I made too many demands; maybe they spent too much money on me. They argued about me a lot of times.
Even when the single-parent family has been created by the death of a parent, the teen or preteen “may believe himself to be responsible for the death.” writes author Clyde C. Besson, “and such a responsibility will create guilt.”
Some kids unconsciously prefer such bearing of responsibility to what they see as the alternative-a feeling of utter helplessness. (see also A Guide to Help Youth with Guilt | LinkedIn)
One of the deepest feelings a [young person] experiences in solo-parent situation is rejection.
Besson adds, “Whether the parent has left by death or divorce, the child still experiences a sense of rejection.” Teens are acutely sensitive to rejection, either expressed or perceived, and they may even harbor feelings of rejection because their single parent, struggling mightily- and alone-with the demands of parenthood, is not home much of the time, or must occasionally miss important events. The young person may even know, intellectually, that Mom (or Dad) is doing the best he or she can, but emotionally a sense of rejection may persist.
In the midst of their confusion, children will feel angry. In the case of a death of a parent, the child will find himself experiencing a sense of anger, feeling that he has been cheated, that he has been deprived of the support and love of that parent. In the case of a divorce, the child will experience anger towards both parents. . . [and particularly] toward the parent who left.
Frequently, however, the [youth] will not express his anger towards the missing parent, but rather toward the parent who has custody.
Even in a case where the father or mother walks out and never comes back, the anger will be expressed to the parent who remains.” (see also Anger – Bijoyful)
Whether the single-parent family is caused by death or divorce, youth in such families may be especially vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. (see also Unhealthy Self-Esteem – Bijoyful) The circumstances that led to divorce, the divorce process itself, and the conditions that commonly follow a divorce often constitute three “strikes” against an adolescent or pre-adolescent’s sense of self-worth. Teens or preteens may feel different from – and less worthy than- friends whose families are intact; they may feel stigmatized by society or neighborhood because of the family split and accept that stigmatization as a reflection of their low worth. Stigmatization may also occur (or be inferred by youth) because of a parent’s behavior (alcoholism, promiscuity, abusiveness), which can strike a crippling blow to a young person’s self-esteem. Economic changes or hardships can also constitute, in a young mind, evidence of low worth.
When relationships have hurt us, we tend to pull in, withdraw, and not talk, love or care.
Young people in single parent families, Hutchcraft writes, are particularly susceptible to such withdrawal. They may feel somewhat estranged from one or both parents. They may feel alienated from their school/college group, even when they have experienced no unpleasant or judgmental reaction from friends or teachers. They may feel suddenly distant from their friends. They may feel deserted and rejected by God Himself and will frequently wonder how God could allow such a thing to happen to their family.
In the wake of such alienation, of course, many teens and preteens experience bouts of extreme loneliness. They may feel friendless, helpless and alone. They may think that no one understands what they are going through, what they are feeling. They may withdraw physically to their bedrooms. They may withdraw emotionally into fantasy or melancholy. They may do both.
Response to the Problem of Living in a Single-Parent Family
The sensitive teacher, youth leader, or parent can help an adolescent or preadolescent adjust to and cope with single-parent situation by implementing a plan such as the following:
Teens in single-parent families need the freedom to express what they are feeling, writes Besson, especially in two areas:
the freedom to express feelings about the missing parent and the freedom to express negative feelings without condemnation.
If the youth use inappropriate language, the adult may request for more appropriate words, but the adult will be wise to listen closely to the feelings that lay behind the young person’s words.
Don’t be too quick to judge or correct the young person’s reactions, nor to offer solution. Initially, take time simply to empathize with him. Comfort him. Let him know of your care and concern.
Communicate acceptance and affirmation to the youth. Remember that he or she may be feeling rejected and alienated; the first step toward healing and progress may be for him or her to know that someone believes in him, that someone thinks she’s worth something. Remind the youth that both God and you value and appreciate him or her. Many people who are struggling in difficult circumstances need affirmation-reassurance of their own worth and capabilities -more than anything else.
Some of the following ideas may help parent or concerned adult to guide a young person struggling with the many adjustments of life in a single-parent family:
- Encourage dependence on God. Help the teen in a single-parent family learn to turn to God for comfort and fellowship when other relationships fail. He truly is a “father to the fatherless” and a loving parent who can strengthen and sustain the youth through the many difficulties and challenges of life and adolescence.
- Preserve routines or traditions that are intact. Routine can be reassuring in times of transition; encourage the preservation of bedtimes, mealtimes, school-related routines, etc.
- Encourage involvement in youth groups in community. A healthy and vibrant youth group is an important part of a young person’s life-especially for a child from a single-parent home. Youth workers need single parents, and single parents need them.
- Encourage parent substitutes in the teen’s life. Guide the teen boy living with a single mom to male adults who can make regular contributions to his life; help the teen girl who is living with her father to identify female adults in community who can help her answer questions and provide guidance on regular basis. Try to develop a strong network of families and adopted “uncles” and “aunts” to serve as role models of male and female relationships.
- Offer Hope. Children of divorce and kids of single parent families do face more obstacles that many other kids, but the majority of kids in single-parent homes do pretty well: they do pursue higher studies, they don’t typically display high levels of emotional distress, and they don’t get involved in problem behavior. Help the youth understand that they is reason to hope, particularly if he or she trusts God and is supported by a caring, understanding community.
There is much in a single-parent family that no one can change. Mom and Dad probably won’t get back together; things will never be like they were. The parent, teacher, or youth worker can help by enlisting the youth’s cooperation and participation in acknowledging and devising the things he or she can change, the things he or she can improve. Focus his or her attention on constructive things that are within his or her power to do, and encourage such things, which may include:
- Attending more carefully to the relationship with the absent parent (by calling twice a week, for example).
- Recording his or her thoughts and feelings in a journal.
- Helping younger siblings.
- Joining a support group at community or school or college.
- Seek support in healthy peer relationships, such as a community youth group.
Jim Smoke advises, “If [the youth] does not resume normal development and growth in his life within a year of the divorce [or other precipitating event], he may need the special care and help of a professional counselor.
If negative pattern continues after a number of months, seek help. A few words by a trained professional can often [help the young person] turn the corner.” Such a referral, of course, should only be done with parental permission (and, preferably, participation).
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Bijo Joseph is the founder of Bijoyful Foundation, a faith-based NGO (reg. 357152/sec. 8 co.) that aims to deliver positive changes in the lives of young people troubled with adverse mental health, addiction or other life challenges through range of strength-based, recovery, livelihood programs and support offered by counsellors, social workers and volunteers. He has youth leadership experience of 17 years and with educational foundation from TISS, Mumbai & IIM Calcutta.