Nurturing Positive Feelings In A Single Parent Family
Single parents are often concerned with their "single" status. They worry that being single might have a negative effect on their children. Sometimes they feel guilty that their child isn't "getting as much" as a child in a two parent home. Often they feel bewildered or exhausted by the constant demands of taking care of a child single-handedly. Common, too, at least in divorced households, is the added anger or bitterness toward an uncooperative ex-spouse.
The feelings that single parents have can seem particularly intense at times. If you're not single by choice, you may have feelings of anger, sadness, or rage at an ex, or even at a loved one who died. If you are single by choice you may have other intense feelings -- of loneliness, worry, guilt, insecurity. And with these feelings near the surface, it's sometimes painful for parents to see that their children also have feelings of insecurity, anger, guilt or sadness. It's often difficult to allow children to experience their negative feelings when your own are so close to the surface. This can be especially hard if your child's feelings are about your single parent status.
One single mother, who adopted her daughter, told me that the other day her daughter said to her "You're a lousy mother, you know. I wish I had a Daddy instead of you." As the mother retold this story, she began to cry. Her occasional feelings of anxiety about whether she'd done the right thing, guilt about not "providing her daughter" with a father, combined with her worries about being an adequate mother all came rushing up at the same time, and she felt overwhelmed with hurt and sadness.
The truth is that children, ANY children, are tuned in to our feelings as parents. And how we feel about our circumstances, whether it be guilty, angry, sad, lonely or another feeling is communicated to them in no uncertain terms. Children don't have more mature ways of expressing themselves when they feel hurt by us or angry at us, so they often use their knowledge of our vulnerability to get back at us, or hurt us. Refusing to be hurt in a case like this is often the best strategy. If you're not hurt, and simply recognize your child's tactics to hurt you for what they are, then she won't find this method particularly helpful in the future.
But what happens if your child's goal is not to hurt you? What if he's angry that you divorced, or envious that his friend has two parents, or lonely because your spouse died? These feelings are difficult to handle, because chances are that you have similar feelings from time to time. In this case, as with all children, it's important to recognize and respect your child's feelings. This may mean momentarily putting your own feelings on hold, and almost certainly means resisting the temptation to take on your child's feelings, or fight his battles.
Children need, more than anything else, to be listened to, and to have their feelings understood. Yet many parents find this difficult when the feelings are negative. Our natural reaction is to try to "fix it", cover up or downplay the feelings (hoping that the child will forget about them or realize that it's "no big deal.") The problem is that none of these strategies will have the ultimate effect that we want - more positive feelings. This is because nurturing positive feelings in your child first requires that you be willing to accept your child's negative feelings. It's analogous to someone handing you a quarter. You can't have it unless you take the "tails" with the "heads". The two sides of the coin simply can't be separated.
There are two things that a parent must do before they can effectively communicate acceptance of a child's negative feelings.
1) Refrain from blocking communication.
2) Put your feelings on hold momentarily.
Recognizing when you are blocking communication will help you respond in a more accepting way. Michael Popkin, PhD suggests that there are nine ways of inappropriately responding when a child has negative feelings:
1) Commanding: "Quit whining!"
2) Giving advice: "Why don't you do something to take your mind off it. If you don't think about it, you won't feel sad anymore."
3) Placating: "I know Daddy (or Mommy) canceled today, but we'll have fun together, try not to think about it."
4) Interrogating: "Why are you sad? What's wrong with you anyway? I just don't understand you."
5) Distracting: "Oh honey, it's not so bad, come on over here and sit by me and we'll color together."
6) Playing psychologist: "How do you feel about that?" "Hmmm, and why do you feel that way?"
7) Using Sarcasm: "Well, it's not the end of the world after all..."
"Oh, and I suppose it'll kill you to stay home with me instead of going with your Mom (Dad)."
8) Moralizing: "Oh honey, tomorrow's a new day after all, so there's no sense worrying about it."
9) Being a Know-it-all: "Now listen, you don't have it so tough. There are plenty of kids who have much more to be sad about than you do. I remember when I was growing up. Things were much harder then...( blah, blah, blah)"
Once you've recognized when you're blocking communication, and stopped yourself from responding in one of the above ways, it may also be necessary to put your own feelings "on hold" about your circumstances. To do this, you might want to keep the following points in mind:
1) Single parenting, above all else is still about parenting. It's sometimes easy to let your single status overwhelm you, but if you stay focused on PARENTING, it will ultimately make your job easier.
2) It's a myth that the single parent household is more "deprived" than one with two parents. Children raised by one parent, whether that parent is divorced, widowed, or chose to be single can be just as healthy and happy as children raised in a two parent home. It's not necessary to either feel guilty or defensive about your single parent status. The single parent family is still a family.
3) Remember that your feelings are communicated in no uncertain terms to your children. If you feel like you're depriving your children in some way, they will feel deprived. If you take on a victim status, your children will feel victimized as well.
4) Your circumstances don't make your life difficult, it's the way you look at your circumstances that makes your life difficult. You have a choice: you can choose to see a glass as half full or half empty. If you realize that one healthy parent is a full glass, your child will feel full and complete in his life as well. Remember that the evidence strongly suggests that children can be irreparably harmed by living in two parent households when their parents don't respect each other, argue constantly, and exhibit other unhealthy behaviors.
It's crucial in single parent families, as in all families, that parents communicate to a child that ALL feelings are O.K., even the uncomfortable ones. This reassures the child that she is normal and needn't be afraid of feeling uncomfortable. Further, it has the potential to give the child ways of looking at her circumstances in a more positive light. It is only by giving that gift of acceptance to your child about her feelings that allows you to open the door for good communication. And through that communication, you'll have the opportunity to communicate the TRUTH about single parent families, and that is that they are, above all else, FAMILIES, and that being in a family is a special and wonderful gift, no matter what it's size or shape.