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Risk Prevention for Single Parent Families

By Diane C. Shearer, M.A., CFLE

For years now, we have been hearing about the social statistics that tell us kids of divorce, or those who live in single parent homes, are prone to risky behaviors and circumstances, such as teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, or juvenile delinquency. Although the statistics are sobering and presumably accurate, the cause and effect is more complex than simply only having one parent around or not. Economics, educational level, and a history of family violence or substance abuse are only a few of the many factors that determine a child's success. But more importantly, the behavior of each parent involved, a good extended family support system, and the values taught at home are positive influences on a child's life, no matter how many caretakers are around. With that in mind, I would like to offer some words of encouragement to single parents who worry daily that their marital status is ruining their children. Here are a few factors that can make a huge difference in preventing kids in single parent homes from becoming part of the much publicized negative statistics.

Protect your child's self esteem. Part of why kids of divorce go astray is that their parents are so prone to being angry, in constant conflict, and tearing down each other's character in front of or to their children. This causes children to feel that their parents' problems are their fault. The negative words about the other parent only serve to confirm for children that they are bad because their parents are bad. If parents worked harder at building their children's self-esteem rather than indirectly tearing it down through their nasty conflicts with one another, kids would be less likely to need to fill the hole in their self-image through other means, such as promiscuity or substance abuse. Watch your words. Kids need to know they are unconditionally loved no matter what crazy things their parents are doing or saying. Take extra effort to send the message "You are loveable" to your kids.

Be a non-anxious, listening parent. One of the biggest mistakes single and divorced parents make with their kids is that they cannot control their own emotions long enough to focus on their kids' needs. If parents are so focused on what the other parent is doing, rather than what their kids need, they are not likely to be there to listen when kids need to express sensitive emotions. Likewise, single parents can be so stressed and spread out, they forget that their real job is to be available and open to what their kids need from them, which is most often a listening ear. When children go to their parents to vent, they need their emotions supported, even if what they say is out of line. If each time they do this, their words are met with a strong negative reaction (usually blaming the other parent), kids will stop talking and learn that their parents cannot handle hearing how they feel. When kids feel that parents cannot hear them, they will seek out other people and places to be noticed and heard. Most often, the "other" places are not healthy or desirable for kids. Be the non-anxious parent – the one who can hold on to her/his own emotions in order to listen to your child's. Parents exist for their children's purposes, not the other way around. Adults do best to take care of their own strong feelings with the other adults in their lives, but when children are around, the adult emotions need to be put aside to focus on what kids need in the moment.

Model good values. Most kids will not be able to explain what the word integrity means, but they will instinctively know when their parents are not living up to it! Kids pick up on their parents' inconsistencies. They detect dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness. When parents don't do what they say they are going to do, they lose integrity with their kids. When parents require more of their children than they require of themselves, kids notice that as well. The best way to teach kids really good, honest values is to maintain your integrity by acting out your values before them, not simply giving them lip service. When kids see that their parents are honest, honorable humans, they develop their own moral compass that is likely to guide them when they are tempted to stray. Again, under the worst of times – going through a divorce or separation – parents are more prone to compromise their value system and do things that they normally would not do if they were more emotionally stable. Now, more than ever, kids need at least one role model who helps them be clear about healthy decision-making.

Pay attention and set firm limits. Parents who are competing for their kids' love, rather than focusing on what kids need, are likely to loosen their standards or blur the boundaries in order to get kids to be on their side. Nothing could be more destructive. Kids feel safe when they know who is in charge of their lives. Even though they may protest (and they will), knowing where the boundaries are keeps them from venturing into the adult world where they are not mature enough to handle the responsibilities that go with that world. Don't let divorce or single parenthood change the way you set rules and consequences for your kids. In fact, kids whose parents do not live together are more likely to try to divide and conquer them. Be diligent, especially with adolescents, about knowing where they are, who they are with and what they are doing. Cell phones make it possible for kids and parents to stay in contact virtually all day, any time. Require kids to check in with you often in the late afternoon when you are likely to be at work and to have unsupervised time. Develop age-appropriate rules and consequences and stick to them. Maintaining your integrity and respect with your kids requires you to put loving action behind your words. When kids aren't sure where the boundaries are, they are likely to run in the wrong direction until someone stops them. Coordinating the rules with the other parent is a good idea if you communicate well, but if not, kids need at least one parent who can provide the safety of caring restraint.

Diane Chambers Shearer is a family counselor, divorce mediator, and parent educator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press, 1997) and publishes The Peaceful Co-Parent, a quarterly newsletter for divorce parents. For ordering information, visit her website.

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