Single parents raising happy, healthy children

Children raised by single parents can be just as happy and mentally healthy as children living with two biological parents. Whether a child has one parent or more, children do well when they have parenting that’s nurturing, warm, sensitive, responsive and flexible.

Parents can give their children this kind of parenting when they:

  • feel confident about parenting most of the time
  • are concerned about being a good parent
  • understand that no-one’s perfect
  • have support from family and friends.

Children can be frightened by the strong emotions that go along with separation. If you’re a single parent experiencing separation, it’s good to tell your child that both parents love him and that the separation isn’t his fault.

Building positive relationships with children when you’re a single parent

Positive family relationships help children feel secure and loved. They help you feel good too.

Here are some ways you can nurture your relationship with your child:

  • Make the most of everyday moments. Quality time with your child can happen anytime and anywhere. You can talk at dinner instead of watching TV. You can play word games on the bus, have a singalong in the car or tell funny stories at bedtime.
  • Be interested. Talk about your child’s favourite things, from sport to music to books to how things work. Get your child to show you how to play her favourite board game or app.
  • Pay positive attention. Smile, laugh and hug your child as often as you can. Show him that you’re happy to see him first thing in the morning and when she comes home from child care, kindergarten or school.
  • Make one-on-one time. If you have more than one child, try to make some regular time alone with each child. It could be a book before bed with younger children or a quiet game with an older child when the younger ones are asleep.
  • Praise your child. For example, you might say ‘I’m really proud of how you talked to me about how you’re feeling’.

Encouraging good behaviour when you’re a single parent

Clear rules and boundaries give children a sense of safety and security.

But it can be harder to be consistent with rules and boundaries when you’re a single parent, especially if you’re tired and stressed, or if your child’s behaviour is challenging.

If you’re single parenting because of a recent separation, you might see some challenging behaviour from your child. This is pretty typical. For example, some children might go back to doing things they’ve grown out of, like bedwetting, baby talking, not sleeping, not eating or throwing tantrums. Your child might also be in a bad mood and argue more often.

Below are some ideas for encouraging good behaviour and handling challenging behaviour. And if challenging behaviour doesn’t sort itself out in a few weeks, you can also try talking to a child health professional, like your GP or child and family health nurse.

Acknowledge feelings 
Encourage your child to put angry or frustrated feelings into words, and show her that you’re listening. You can acknowledge these feelings without accepting inappropriate behaviour. For example, ‘I can see you’re feeling really angry – but shouting at me is not OK. Let’s take a few deep breaths together and then talk about what’s going on’.

Create clear rules 
Let your child know the family rules that apply when he’s in your care. If you’re separated, it’s OK if your rules are different from your former partner’s.

Agreeing on some rules at a family meeting can be a good first step. This gives everyone a chance to join in, which makes it more likely that your child will follow the rules.

Try to be consistent
Children behave better when they have consistent rules. Stick to your rules as much as possible and remind yourself to be calm, even if your child pushes back. If you’re not always consistent – that’s OK. Just work on not giving in next time.

If you’ve recently separated, it’s good to keep reinforcing the same rules you encouraged before your separation.

Choose your battles 
Dealing with discipline issues can be exhausting when you’re single parenting. It can help to choose your battles. For example, you might feel cranky if your preschooler draws on her sister’s face with markers. But if the marker washes off, does it really matter?

If you let the little things go, you’ll have more energy to act calmly when you have to deal with important issues like safety or wellbeing.

Getting the parenting balance right

Like all parents, you might sometimes struggle to get the parenting balance right.

If you find yourself being too hard – for example, shouting at your child or putting him in his room for too long – try not to get too upset with yourself. Instead, reconnect with your child and reassure him, then think about how you could handle the situation better next time.

If you’re worried you might hurt your child, call Lifeline on 131 114 or call a parenting helpline.

It’s also easy to be too soft with your child, especially if giving in gives you a bit of peace. If your family has experienced a separation or any other major family change, you might also feel reluctant to discipline your child, thinking that she’s been through enough. But dealing with behaviour issues as they happen avoids problems later.

As a single parent, your positive attitude, strength and determination can give your child an example that lasts for life. You can show your child that you can keep going, even when things are difficult. But no parent is perfect, so don’t be too hard on yourself when something goes wrong.

Handling your feelings and grown-up issues

Your child is bound to see you feeling sad, angry or upset in times of stress. That’s normal for all parents in all families. It’s important to let your child know that you love him and that your negative feelings are not about him. It can also help to reassure your child that things will get better, and you’ll be there for him.

If you feel your child is 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 grumpy mood’. Expressing your feelings also helps children learn to express their own.

As a general rule, try to keep grown-up issues out of discussions with your child. Some adult problems – like financial concerns, infidelity or conflict with a former partner – can make children feel very anxious. Use your own adult support networks, and talk things over with other adults.

Calling a parenting helpline can also help.