By Raising Children Network
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Toddler touching noses with her dad
You can be a successful parent, regardless of your family circumstances. What matters is how children are parented, not the type of household they live in. Successful parents build good relationships with their children, manage difficult behaviour and handle their own feelings.

Here’s the good news: happy single-parent families with healthy, well-adjusted children can and do exist.

Research suggests that when parents – single or partnered – spend time with their kids, children do well. It’s so important to encourage, listen, love and care about your children. Let them know you’re interested in their lives.

A relaxed home that is free of conflict and violence is very good for children, as are positive co-parenting arrangements. Successful parents in all types of households:

  • feel confident about parenting
  • are concerned about being good parents
  • make good use of family networks.

Building positive relationships with your children

When parents separate, children still need exactly what they needed before – a secure emotional base, routine, protection, encouragement to learn, and the support of a trusting, loving parent.

As a single parent, especially in the early days, it might feel harder to show the warmth and encouragement that your kids need. So how can you keep showing them you care?

  • Make the most of everyday moments. Quality time with your kids can happen anytime and anywhere. You can chat on the way to child care, kindergarten or school. You can talk at dinnertime instead of watching TV. Try playing word games on the bus, or having a sing-along in the car.
  • Be interested. Talk about your children’s favourite things, from sport to music to books or how things work. Get them to show you how to play their favourite board or computer game. But try to avoid question-and-answer sessions.
  • Pay positive attention. Smile, laugh and hug your children as often as you can. Show them that you’re happy to see them when you greet them in the morning and when they come home from child care, kindergarten or school.
  • Make one-to-one time. When you can, put aside some regular time alone with each child. It could be a book before bed or a game with an older child after the younger ones are asleep. Or try a special outing to the park with a younger child while older siblings are at school.

Video Single parents

In this short video, single parents talk about their experiences of raising children alone. Parents share strategies for coping, being good role models, and getting support and reassurance from family and friends. Your parenting circumstances are less important than your ability to be there for your child.

Encouraging good behaviour

It can be easier to manage your children’s behaviour as a single parent. You decide on the rules – what you say goes. And encouraging good behaviour is the same in single-parent families as in any other family.

But keeping consistent boundaries is hard when you’re tired and stressed, or if your children’s behaviour is challenging. Here are some extra things to keep in mind about your children’s behaviour when you’re parenting alone.

Expect some challenging behaviour
In times of change, expect to see differences in your child’s behaviour. For example:

  • Some children might go back to doing things they have grown out of, like bedwetting, baby talk, not sleeping, not eating or throwing tantrums. This is a common response to stress or major change, and it will pass. If the behaviour doesn’t sort itself out in a few weeks, try consulting your GP or child and family health nurse.
  • You children might be in bad moods and fight more often. When kids act frustrated or angry, encourage them to put their feelings into words and show them that you’re listening. You can acknowledge these feelings without accepting inappropriate behaviour. For example, you might say, ‘I understand this makes you angry. I’m happy to talk to you about it when you have calmed down’.

Create clear rules
Let your children know, clearly and simply, the family rules that apply when they are in your care. It’s OK if your rules are different from your ex-partner’s – kids can learn that different people have different rules. Agreeing on some rules at a family meeting can be a good first step. This gives everyone a chance to participate, which in turn makes it more likely that kids will follow the rules.

Try to be consistent
Stick to your rules as much as possible, even if kids push. It’s hard to maintain consistency on your own. You might feel upset if you can’t be as consistent as you would like. Just remind yourself to be calm. Work on not giving in next time.

Discipline: choose your battles
Dealing with discipline issues can be especially hard when you’re parenting alone. You might need to be pragmatic at times, so choose your battles. Before you get irritated, ask yourself if it really matters. You might feel cranky if your preschooler draws on his sister’s face with markers. But, as long as the marker washes off, does it really matter?

Be conscious of your own stress
Parenting on your own can sometimes mean parenting under pressure. When you’re feeling stressed, you might end up being too hard or too soft with your kids.

If you find yourself being too hard, try not to get too upset with yourself. Instead, think about how you could handle the situation better next time. Be aware, though, that arguments might be harder for your child to deal with now. This is because she is more likely to see you as her primary source of security.

Seek help if you’re finding it hard to keep your cool or are using discipline too harshly. Read more about when you feel you might hurt your child.

It’s easy to be too soft with your children, especially if giving in lets you have a bit of peace. You might also feel reluctant to discipline your kids, thinking that they’ve been through enough. Dealing with behaviour issues as they occur avoids problems later. It also teaches children about acceptable and appropriate behaviour.

Keep a positive attitude
As a single parent, your positive attitude, strength and determination give your kids an example that will last for life. If something bad happens, show your kids that you can pick yourself up and dust yourself off.

Video Encouraging good behaviour

This video demonstration features tips on encouraging good behaviour in children, including strategies to avoid tantrums, whining and hitting. Children learn a lot from watching their parents' reactions and behaviour. Praise and encouragement are also important. The video highlights the importance of clear communication and connection with your child.
For more help and ideas on young children’s behaviour, you can also check out our article on encouraging good behaviour.

Handling your feelings and grown-up issues

Your children are bound to see you feeling sad, angry or upset. It’s important to let them know that you love them and that your negative feelings are not about them. Reassure them that things will get better.

If you feel your children are old enough to understand, try being honest about what’s bothering you without going into detail. For example, ‘I had a bad day at work today. I’m in a cranky mood’, or ‘I’m sorry I made a mistake’. Expressing your feelings also gives kids permission to express their own.

When you don’t have a partner to talk to, it’s easy to fall into the habit of discussing grown-up issues with your children. But burdening them with adult worries means kids have to be mature beyond their years.

As a general rule, try to keep grown-up issues out of discussions with your child. Some grown-up problems – like financial concerns – can make children feel anxious. Use your own adult support networks, and talk things over with other grown-ups.
  • Last updated or reviewed 23-11-2012
  • Acknowledgements

    Article developed in collaboration with Elly Robinson, Australian Institute of Family Studies, and in collaboration with Dr Richard Fletcher, Leader, Fathers and Families Research Program.

    Based on material produced for Single mothers: A resource for parenting solo, a publication produced by the Parenting Research Centre in collaboration with the Council of Single Mothers and funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.