It's natural when there isn't another adult at home for single parents to form close relationships with their children. This closeness is one of the unique—and positive—aspects of single-parent families. Your school-age child may be your Friday-night companion, the friend you go to movies with, or the person you talk with about work, friends, and other issues. But it's also important, especially during adolescence, for parents to set boundaries so that teenagers can begin to separate and become more independent.
Here are some tips on developing a healthy relationship with your child:
• Allow your child to be himself. When it's just the two of you, it's easy to become so enmeshed in your child's life that you assume you know everything about him and you forget he is his own person with his own thoughts, feelings, and preferences. Help your child develop independence by encouraging him to say what he thinks.
•Be a parent first and a friend second. Without another adult in the home, a common trap for single parents is to treat their children like friends, especially as children get older. Limit the amount of information you share with your child about your life, marriage, or relationships. If you find yourself confiding in your child or relying too heavily on her companionship, remind yourself that the most important role you play in your child's life is that of parent. Find a friend to confide in about personal issues.
• Encourage your child to voice his own needs. You may know your child so well that you can anticipate his every need. But if you don't require him to ask for what he wants, he'll have a hard time learning this skill with other people. Look for opportunities for him to speak up.
• Teach your child how to resolve conflicts with siblings, friends, and others in peaceful and healthy ways. Children who grow up in a home with two adults in a healthy relationship are able to see how people successfully work through conflicts and problems. This is a very important skill to teach your child.
• Set limits. In two-parent families, one parent may sometimes take the role of nurturer, while the other enforces the rules. In your family, you must do both—by setting limits and making sure your child feels nurtured and loved.
• Allow your child to be a child. Children in single-parent families, especially when they're teenagers, may sometimes try to fill the role of the absent parent and take on grownup responsibilities. Try to keep your child from feeling that she needs to step in to a caretaking role. Avoid giving her too many adult responsibilities. Your child is a child and should have every opportunity to remain one. It is OK to assign chores, but the major tasks in your household should still be your responsibility.
• Make sure your child doesn't feel responsible for your feelings. Your child may assume responsibility for your emotional needs. Make it clear to your child that your happiness is not his job or anyone else's. You are the only one who can take responsibility for how you feel.
• Teach responsibility by asking your child to help out around the house. Not only does this help the family get chores done, it also teaches important skills that your child will need as an adult. When children are younger, they can learn to take care of themselves and their rooms. As they grow, they should begin to help with cooking, doing dishes, laundry, and cleaning. Doing this work together builds strength in the family and also teaches children valuable lessons about responsibility.
"Keep in mind that there is no rule that says kids should be completely and thoroughly entertained at all times. Sometimes a little boredom spurs creative behavior."
—Andrea Engber and Leah Klungness, The Complete Single Mother
• With new chores, be sure to start the job with the child. Some children may not understand the directions for a particular task, such as where to put the dishes from the dishwasher or how to fold and put away clothes. Working with your child the first time will teach her the way you want it done, and is a valuable investment of your time.
• Respect each other's physical boundaries. When your child's bedroom door is closed, knock before entering. Ask that he do the same for you.
• Always promote your child's self-esteem. When a child has only one parent, she will look to you for encouragement and praise. Be sure to tell her each day something she has done well. Put her school papers on the refrigerator, or call a relative about a special accomplishment. Praise her often in front of others, telling stories in her presence about good choices she made in school or in social situations.
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