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The Single Parent Juggling Act: 5 Tips to Help You Manage

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

There’s a famous quote about Ginger Rogers that says, “She did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards.” In some ways, being a single parent is similar, except you’re doing everything other parents do, only solo.

I was talking with a single mom recently who described her day like this, but I think it probably is true for a lot of you out there, as well: "I rush home from work, dash off to the supermarket, pick the kids up from practice, go home and try to get dinner on the table. The arguing begins when I ask them to help out, and they start fighting with me. Any time I tell my oldest “no” these days, she screams, ‘I hate you – you are the worst mother in the world! I wish I could live full-time with Dad!’ I explode, then she runs out of the room, slamming her bedroom door. I’m so tired of playing out this scene night after night!”

It’s important to remember that children naturally fight to get what they want. To not be worn down and give in to your child’s demands and challenging behaviors can take a superhuman effort when you never get a break.

Related: Find the secret of staying calm with your kids, no matter what.

It’s hard enough raising kids with a partner, let alone parenting on your own. It takes confidence, resilience and courage. If you’re a single mom or dad, rest assured you’re not alone: according to the United States Census Bureau, one of every two children will live in single parent homes before they reach the age of 18.

There are many difficulties in raising kids in a two-parent home as well, but to raise them alone has its own special set of challenges. Day-to-day parenting becomes more daunting when a parent is overburdened and under-supported.

“I feel so worn down.”
It’s important to remember that children naturally fight to get what they want. To not be worn down and give in to your child’s demands and challenging behaviors can take a superhuman effort when you never get a break. Added to this, if you’re separated or divorced, your energy may still be absorbed in ongoing conflicts with your ex. Children from divorced homes sometimes get pulled into the middle of these conflicts and might have a lot of complicated feelings around the breakup. They may disrespect their parents and feel they’re “owed” for the disruption to their lives by acting rebellious, defiant or entitled. Other kids feel like they need to fill in the role of the missing parent, and start acting like the boss instead of the child they are.

If the single parent is widowed, their energy may be absorbed in their grief. It may take a long time for the remaining spouse to get back on his/her feet. The child might become the caretaker of the grieving parent or try to fill the void of the missing one.

If you add to the mix a child with a learning disability, ADHD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, you can feel extreme exhaustion and isolation without a partner to step in when you are overwhelmed and at the end of your rope. Single parents simply do not have this luxury, because there isn’t anyone there to pick up the slack or give them a break.

As a result of the stresses and strains, a single parent might tend to “give in” to their child’s demands from pure exhaustion, and then lose it on their kids from exasperation. It might sometimes feel like you and your child have become like bickering siblings rather than parent and child. Or as time goes by, you might look to your child as a source of support, but start to feel uncomfortable about displeasing them. These dynamics can happen naturally over time, but they make it difficult to set limits with their children and to be respected as the authority in your home, which can make your life a lot more challenging in the long run.

Related: Is your child challenging your authority?

So what does it take for a single parent to manage things successfully and raise resilient kids?

1. Develop a support network for yourself. I can’t state enough how important this one is. Work on building a network of caring individuals around you and your child. Share holidays and go on day trips with family and trusted friends if you can so they get to know your children. Encourage your children to use them as supports when necessary. Discuss with your friends your big decision issues. Vent your frustrations and share your joys with them. Developing strong adult relationships will help prevent you from leaning too heavily on your children for emotional support, too.

2. Try to maintain a mature relationship with your ex. If you are separated or divorced, work at being civil with one another. Ongoing conflicts often have a negative effect on children, and can leave them feeling bitter, frustrated, withdrawn and stressed. Work to manage your communication and emotions well so your child isn’t caught in the middle of your battles. If you have a difficult relationship with your ex, the first step is to stop contributing to the conflict. It takes two to participate, but only one to stop. If your ex criticizes you to the kids, just respond by saying that you are comfortable with how you are handling things, rather than defending yourself or throwing back a jab. This way your children are not in a position to have to decide which parent is right, wrong, better or worse. Kids want to be free to have good feelings toward both parents and get on with their lives. Children will appreciate you if you put your energy toward maintaining good relationships with them rather than trying to prove what a jerk their other parent is.

If you are widowed or have been left, get the support you need to grieve so that you can move forward. Work to get back on your own feet so that your children don’t feel they have to hold you up. If you are having difficulty getting there after a period of time, consider seeking out professional help or a support group.

It’s also important to be a listening ear for your children when they need to express their feelings about being in a single parent home. There is no need to defend yourself. They are not blaming you even if it sounds like they are. They might just be unhappy with the situation. Expressing their feelings and being heard by you will help them come to terms with things.

3. Manage your expectations of yourself and others. Be realistic and reasonable. Your kids will do well and turn out "good enough" when you calm down and allow yourself to be “fine enough” as a parent. That means accepting your limits and imperfections so they can come to terms with their own. You don’t need to be, nor can you be, a "super parent"—and if you try to be one, your stress will get in the way of that goal. Be compassionate and reasonable toward yourself and your kids.

Related: "Anxiety is contagious—and so is calm."

4. Expect respect from your children. Expect your children to treat you with respect, even when they grow bigger and stronger than you. Insist from day one that they respect you. Never put up with abuse. You are their parent and they need to treat you as such. Do not allow yourself to get entangled in endless debates or arguments. Once you have decided “no,” politely and calmly disengage. Give yourself some time to decide your answer. If it’s appropriate, give them a chance to negotiate with you, but once you have given their request some reasonable thought, end the conversation…even if they are not happy with your decision. Your answer is now final. Explain limits clearly and honestly, and then walk away if your child tries to engage you in an argument.

5. Spend uninterrupted time with your kids. Have time with your kids, even if it is just twenty minutes. Get to know the important people in their lives such as their teachers, coaches and friends. Create routines and rituals with your family. Whether you vacation each year in the same place, have holidays with the same extended family or have a special evening or Sunday routine, stick with it as best you can. These daily, weekly, monthly or yearly routines become a tremendous support for kids after a break up or loss in the family. The routines also provide kids with a sense of security, continuity and a healthy sense of family togetherness.

Related: How to identify the consequences that will work for your child.

Incorporate these strategies into your life so you can continually build and maintain your resilience. Let your parenting principles—rather than your moment-to-moment emotions—be your guide. By following these tips, you can rest easy knowing that you and your single parent family will thrive.

About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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