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Understanding Single Parent Families

Kirsten Schuder
Single parent and child

More and more parents are raising their children on their own these days, either by choice or due to circumstances beyond their control. It's no secret that being a single parent isn't easy, and the challenges of raising kids, providing for a family, and keeping it all together can certainly be difficult, but not impossible. Arm yourself with the facts, tips and resources you need to succeed.

Different Types of One-Parent Families

The Encyclopedia of Children's Health states there several different kinds of single parent families, including:

  • A family headed by a divorced parent
  • A family headed by a widowed parent
  • A family headed by a single parent who isn't married yet or is a single parent by choice

Single parents also include non-married parents who live together. Even if the mother and father live in the same residence, they are still counted as single parents.

Eye-Opening Facts About Single Parent Households

According to an article written by Susan Pollet, Esq. published at the New York State Unified Court System website,, the amount of single parent families has tripled since 1960.


  • Single parent families raise one quarter of the nation's children.
  • In 2000, approximately 30 percent of the babies born were to single mothers.
  • Out of the 84 percent of women who are single parents, 44 percent of them were divorced or separated.
  • Out of the 16 percent of men who are single parents, 57 percent of them were divorced.
  • Approximately 20 percent of female single parents are unemployed, whereas only 8 percent of male single parents were unemployed.
  • One third of all single parent families live in poverty and receive public assistance.
  • Children in single parent households are not necessarily more at risk than children in married households. Past literature indicated that children of single parent households tended to be poor, were more likely to drop out of high school, and were more likely to be teen parents. However, recent findings suggest that children from single parent households do not experience quite the same challenges if the single parent provides a stable household and has a stable relationship with his or her children.

According to a report titled America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2012, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, other noteworthy fact include:

  • The amount of single parent households headed by women was 12.1 percent of all households (page 12).
  • The percent of single parent households headed by men was 2.3 (page 12).
  • A majority of single-parent families live in the southeastern region of the United States, east of the Mississippi, as well as in Ohio, New York, Michigan, Maryland, Arizona, and New Mexico (page 18).

Special Challenges of Single Parenting

Heads of single parent households face some specific disadvantages when parenting and dealing with other issues that may arise.

Finances and Poverty

Single parents tend to be more vulnerable to falling into poverty. Running a household on one paycheck can be tight, and daycare puts an additional strain on paychecks, especially if a parent needs to pay more than one care giver or pay for after-school programs.

The Brookings Institute offers testimony given to the United States Senate Committee on Finance by Ron Haskins (former White House and congressional advisor on welfare issues). In that testimony, Haskins indicates that single parent families headed by women have always accounted for a large portion of the poverty rates in the United States, and the number of this type of household is rising.

The good news is that the amount of single women entering the workforce has increased over the last couple of decades thanks to programs such as Welfare-to-Work, and this has offset poverty rates for this vulnerable population. However, due to the structure of the family, poverty rates may always be higher for single moms than for two-parent households. Even though more single moms are working, the poverty rate for two-parent households was only 11 percent in 2009, whereas the poverty rate for single female heads of household was 44.3 percent.

Adjustments for Widowed and Divorced Parents

Single parents who are newly divorced or widowed, in addition to being the only authority in the house, will have to handle all issues that arise from the change in their living circumstances.

According to the Child Development Institute, not only will single parents have to handle their own emotional issues that arise from the death of a spouse, they will also have to single-handedly help their children deal with the emotional issues that arise from change, adjustment, and loss.

For example:

  • A sense of loss occurs when parents divorce, as well as when a parent dies.
  • Children lose 24/7 access to both parent's physical presence.
  • The parent they spend the most time with may no longer have as much time available for them.
  • Children of divorced or widowed parents may have to adjust to living in a smaller home or having less time and money.

According to Jane K. Burgess in her book, The Family Coordinator, many divorced parents go through a high degree of social instability, which leaves single parents more vulnerable to self-esteem issues and mental health problems. Social instability is also linked to higher rates of emotional problems.

Single Parent Families and Stress

All families have stress for a variety of reasons, but single parent families also have stress that is specific to their situation. According to the American Psychological Association, single parents going through a divorce might experience the following issues.

  • They may have ongoing conflicts with the other parent, especially over child custody and visitation.

  • They may experience time constraints because of the added responsibilities of running the household and going to work. This typically means they have less time to spend with their children
  • Their children may develop social and academic problems due to disruptions in their normal living circumstances, including parental conflicts and reduced attention from one or both parents.
  • They may lose the support of the ex-spouse's extended family.

Challenges for the Children

When family dynamics change in the household, so will the children's roles. For example, they might have take on a caretaker role with younger siblings. According to the Better Health Channel, children of single parent households face many types of challenges.

For example:

  • Kids might get less play time as they take on more responsibilities in the house.
  • Kids might take on a more adult role, which can make it difficult for them to concede to authority figures such as teachers, sitters, etc.
  • In cases of divorce, kids might be influenced by parental conflict, which can make them feel like they have to choose one parent over the other.
  • Kids might behave better for the parent they don't see as often. The custodial parent often winds up having to be the disciplinarian, or the "bad guy."

The American Academy of Pediatrics also states that a child's behavior may change - and not always for the better. Boys might become more aggressive and girls might become more withdrawn.

The Subject of Discrimination at Work

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees due to family responsibilities. However, social perceptions can present a challenge to enforcing the law when it comes to single dads. Single working moms are identified as such, but single working dads tend to be perceived simply as men who work.

For example:

  • If a single dad brings a discrimination suit to court, he may not get very far because men are traditionally expected to be breadwinners, not caretakers. This biased perception hurts men's chances of enjoying the same rights as single moms when it comes to taking time off to care for their children.
  • Other male employees might feel like a single dad receives special treatment or uses his children as an excuse to leave early from work when, in fact, he truly has to attend to their needs.
  • Single moms also experience discrimination, and are sometimes seen as "drains" on society. Coworkers may be jealous of single moms due to perceived special treatment. Management might not look favorably upon them as employees, even if the company offers flexible hours so these moms can attend to their children's needs.

Single Parent Stigmas

Many single parents feel that there is still a social stigma when it comes to single parents, even if a person is a single parent by choice.

  • While research appears to support the notion that children of divorced and widowed parents have more problems in school and more emotional problems, it is not the same with parents who decide to be a single parent by choice.
  • According to a 2011 survey conducted by Pew Research, social stigmas are still alive and well. Two thirds of the participants polled responded that the trend toward single parenthood, and single motherhood specifically, has not been a good change for society.
  • According to an article on the Single Parent Family published by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Prince Edward Island, Canada, children often have to contend with hurtful remarks made by insensitive adults.

Handling Others' Perceptions

As noted by the Child Development Institute, many people mistakenly believe that they have the right to give advice to single parents. The parents, on the other hand, may not appreciate this at all, which is easy to understand. Try to keep the following thoughts in mind when you encounter people who want to "take you under their wing," regardless of your wishes.

  • Most people really do mean well and just want to help, while some do not. Either way, you can listen even if you didn't solicit the advice. There could be a grain of wisdom in what they have to say.
  • You always have the option of not following the advice if it doesn't apply to you or your life.
  • There is no need to get into an argument because that will only raise your stress level.
  • Asking "How is that working for you?" can be an effective way to end the conversation if the person is not actually implementing his or her own advice.

Helpful Resources for Single Parents

Keep in mind that there are millions of other single parents all in the same boat. Don't be afraid to ask for help, make new friends, and explore new activities and ideas.

The following Websites will provide you access to some great single parent forums and support groups.

  • One Tough Job - This site is an information center for parents that offers practical advice for raising children.
  • Single Parent Advocate - This organization offers practical advice and assistance, as well as social networking resources to help single parents find the support they need.
  • Single Parents Network - This is a website where single parents can get information on everything about single parenting and learn about available resources, including government resources.

When to Seek Counseling

Just like everyone else, single parents sometimes need help with daily issues. The responsibilities they shoulder can be overwhelming, and there are certain instances where a mental health counselor could help.

For example:

  • If you handle stress by yelling or taking things out on the people around you, see a mental health counselor or psychologist in order to learn healthy ways to deal with stress. Make sure your children see a counselor too so they can also learn coping skills.
  • You should consider counseling if you or your children have difficulty adjusting to your new situation.
  • Counseling may help if your children are acting out in school or at home, such as getting into fights, becoming withdrawn, making major changes in their habits and appearance, and/or experiencing a drop in grades.

Don't see it as a defeat if you decide to seek counseling. You wouldn't feel bad if you had to take your child to the doctor because she was sick. The same importance must be placed upon emotional issues.

A Tough, Yet Rewarding Experience

Whether you are divorced, widowed or have never been married, running a single parent family can be rewarding even though it's also difficult and stressful at times. Keep trying to rise to the challenge, seek help when you need it, and do the best you can.

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Understanding Single Parent Families