The face of single parenting has changed in recent decades. It's no longer synonymous with "broken" homes or "illegitimate" children -- probably at least in part because single parenting is more common now, and parents are more likely to be on their own because they choose to be. Today in the U.S., around 30 percent of all families with children are headed by a single parent (versus nearly 20 percent in 1980) [source: U.S. Census Bureau].
What's more, many of the children in these types of situations do very well. U.S. President Barack Obama, for instance, grew up in a non-traditional household, and it didn't keep him from reaching the highest political office in the nation.
However, while kids raised by single parents are less likely to be stigmatized than they once were, many are still at risk for certain psychological and developmental problems. For example, children from single-parent homes may be more likely to drop out of school, and they are also more vulnerable to alcohol and drug use.
To really get a handle on how single parenting affects children, and how single parents can steer their kids away from these pitfalls, it's important to look at the various factors that can have a negative impact. The source of the problems is not necessarily single-parenthood itself, but a combination of economic pressures, family instability and conflict between parents.
Ultimately, the answer to whether single parenting affects any particular child is this: It depends. A single parent with adequate resources may provide a stable, nurturing home in which children thrive just as well as those who have two parents. On the other hand, a single parent who's just scraping by and has little time, energy or skill for parental duties might have children who are at risk for a variety of problems.
In this article, you'll read about some of the problems that can arise for kids in single-parent households and learn what single parents can do to minimize the risks to their children. To learn more about the potential psychological effects of single parenting, read on to the next page.
Psychological Effects of Having a Single Parent
One major study in Sweden, which is in line with other research on the subject, looked at the health records of nearly a million young people and found that children from single-parent families had twice the incidence of psychiatric illness, suicide attempts and alcohol abuse problems compared with those from two-parent homes [source: Meikle]. Other studies have shown that kids living with single parents have lower self-esteem.
What factors tend to trigger these psychological problems? Divorce remains a common reason why a parent ends up single. It's not unusual for children to be exposed to -- or even drawn into -- the conflict that happens between parents before, during and after a breakup. Some parents may pressure children to choose sides, which can leave them feeling guilty or abandoned [source: Bromfield].
Another risk factor is lack of family stability. Single parents are more likely to move or experience other disruptions that can affect children. A parent may remarry, for example, or live with a succession of partners. Children thrive on stability. Uncertainty and emotional turmoil can increase the chance of psychological pitfalls.
Here are some things a single parent can do to protect kids from these risk factors:
- Talk (and Listen) to children. Explain any changes that are taking place. One study showed that in only 5 percent of cases did parents explain to their children why they were divorcing or listen to their questions [source: Parenting 24/7].
- Shield kids from parental conflict. Don't ask them to take sides. Try to find a way to work with your ex-spouse.
- Pay attention to your own feelings.You may be burdened with guilt and self-loathing because your marriage or relationship failed. These attitudes can be contagious. If necessary, see a counselor to work through issues.
- Accentuate the positive. Children in a single-parent home often take on more responsibility, which can teach them independence. Be sure to recognize their contributions and be generous with praise.
The risks of raising kids in single-parent families go beyond just psychological effects. To learn about the potential developmental effects children in single-parent homes face, read on.
Developmental Effects of Having a Single Parent
Many of the developmental risks that children of single parents face have to do with their progress in school. Compared to kids from two-parent families, they tend to get lower grades, suffer more absenteeism, and have more problems relating to peers and teachers. Their drop-out rate is higher, and they're less likely to attend college [source: Psychology Today]. Children raised by one parent are also more likely than their peers to exhibit problems like increased aggression and anxiety and to have trouble getting along with their parents [sources: jrank.org, Parenting 24/7].
These problems can be long-lasting. A report in the Journal of Family Psychology showed that young adults whose parents had divorced still reported distress -- including feelings of loss because of a diminished relationship with one parent -- 10 years after the fact [source: Parenting 24/7]. These painful memories may be a root cause of some developmental issues.
The economic situation of single parents is another one of the main factors that can make families vulnerable. Half of all risks to these children stem from money problems, researchers have found [source: Miller]. The relation between strained finances and children doing poorly in school can be direct, as with a child who feels obligated to drop out of school to help make ends meet. Or, the impact can be indirect: A single parent working two jobs may simply have less time to help with homework and have less control over his or her kids.
There are a few ways in which a single parent can minimize developmental problems:
- Be consistent. Children do better if they have a regular routine. Established meal times and bed times are important. Discipline should be fair and consistent.
- Budget wisely and keep finances under control. Set spending priorities that take children's needs (not wants) into account.
- Use social supports. One study showed that African-American children in single-parent families do as well in school as those with two parents in the home [source: Lang]. The reason was thought to be a robust network of social supports. Single parents should not hesitate to turn to extended family members, contact other single parents, or consult with a professional counselor for help.
By using some of these strategies, adults may be able to turn single parenthood into a positive experience for both parent and child. To read more about single-parent families, follow the links on the next page
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Adoption.com. "Single Parenting and Children's Academic Achievement." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://library.adoption.com/articles/single-parenting-and-childrens-academic-achievement.html
- American Psychological Association. "Children in Single-Parent Households and Stepfamilies Benefit Most Socially from Time with Grandparents." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2009/02/children-grandparents.aspx
- Bazelon, Emily. "2Kids + 0 Husbands = Family" New York Times Magazine. February 1, 2009. Page 30.
- Bourland, Julia. "When the child is the parent." Parenting. Vol. 14, Iss. 10. Page 258. Dec 2000/Jan 2001
- Bromfield, Richard. "On Your Own." Scholastic Parent & Child. Vol. 15, Iss. 5. Page 56. Feb/Mar 2008.
- Child Trends. "Family Structure Risk." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://www.childtrends.org/schoolreadiness/getdoc.asp?doc=fstructure&col=2&row=9&base=2
- "Good Parents Wanted: All Genders Apply." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://futurity.org/top-stories/good-parents-wanted-all-genders-apply/
- Hughes, Robert, Jr., Ph.D. "The Effects of Divorce on Children." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://parenting247.org/article.cfm?ContentID=646
- Lang, Susan S. "Social Support Networks Trump Number of Parents." Human Ecology. Vol. 30, Iss 4. Page 24. Dec 2002.
- Loanda Cullen, M.A., "Confronting the Myths of Single Parenting." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://parenting.ivillage.com/mom/structure/0,,427z,00.html
- McLanahan, Sara. "Single-Parent Households." Psychology Today. May 01, 1996. (accessed February 4, 2010)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199605/double-the-trouble
- Meikle, James. "Lone-parent children at higher risk of suicide." The Guardian. Jan 24, 2003. Page 10.
- Miller, Jasmine. "The Lone Danger." Today's Parent. Vol. 18, Iss. 2. Page 66. March 2001.
- "Single-Parent Families -- The Effects On Children." (accessed February 9, 2010)http://family.jrank.org/pages/1577/Single-Parent-Families-Effects-on-Children.html
- U.S. Census Bureau. "Single-Parent Households." (accessed February 4, 2010)http://126.96.36.199/search?q=cache:mo559trB5_UJ:www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s1301.xls+table+1301+Single-par