7 Pitfalls for Single Parents
Single Parenting: What You Can do to Help your Children Thrive after Divorce
When Carolyn Ellis’ 20-year relationship ended, she faced life as the single parent of three young children. “I desperately wanted to be the mother I knew my children deserved. Above all, I wanted a simple road map to get me through the challenges of divorce and single parenting successfully,” Ellis says. When she couldn’t find that road map, she turned to a personal coach. Today, Ellis, a Harvard University graduate who has served as a staff coach at the Institute for Integrative Coaching at John F. Kennedy University in California, is the author of The 7 Pitfalls of Single Parenting: What to Do to Help Your Children Thrive After Divorce. Here, in a nutshell, are the 7 Pitfalls:
1. Not Seeing the Big Picture.
“Someone busted up your fully assembled jigsaw puzzle of the perfect life. Now, all you can see is hundreds of tiny pieces everywhere. As you’re putting the pieces back together, you’ll hurt yourself if you keep trying to make them fit into the happily ever after picture you were trying to create before. Someone gave you the wrong box top,” says Ellis. “You have to re-organize your life to fit a new picture. This means helping the kids have the answers they need to important questions such as, Whose house will I be at? Where will I go to school? Am I going to have to move? Those details are very important to kids,” Ellis says. “You need to help them feel secure by letting them know what’s going to happen and as much as possible involving them in the decisions.” Ellis suggests speaking realistic hope and creating a new big picture. “Right now, things are pretty scary. Yes, we’ll have two different houses that we live in. My vision is us as a happy, joyful and strong family with lots of friends. How can we build that?”
2. Getting Hooked By Your Ex-Spouse.
As long as your ex can still push your buttons, you’re still hooked. When you feel resentment over real or perceived wrongs starting to build or have the urge to defend yourself against real or imagined judgments made by your ex, it’s time to disengage. “Part of disengaging from your ex is accepting that what your ex-spouse thinks of you is none of your business,” said Ellis. Disengaging eliminates the sarcasm and removes your children from the battlefield. Get unhooked by reframing your relationship with your ex from one of husband and wife to one of a business partnership. The business is raising your kids and you want that business to be a huge success. In order to successfully co-parent, you have to learn how to communicate with your ex. “If the dialogue starts to get personal, redraw the boundaries and say, ‘You know what, let’s stay out of old territory. Let’s focus on what we need to do to help our children,'” Ellis says. Now, that’s unhooked.
3. Parenting From Guilt.
When parents divorce, their children are affected no matter their age. A 33-year study published in 1998 in the American Sociological Review revealed that children whose parents divorced in their childhood or adolescence were likely to be afflicted with emotional problems such as depression or anxiety well into their 20s or 30s. The guilt parents feel about how their divorce might affect their children can lead to a number of pitfalls in single parenting, among which are being the Disneyland Dad or the Hand-wringing Mother who’s constantly upset. Rather than stressing over how much money or time you can’t give your children, Ellis coaches her clients to just be with them. Listening to and being physically present with your children will help them to feel connected to you. That connection will help compensate for things that may have gone wrong. And that positive connection will help make them feel like you’re all doing great.
4. Going for the Martyr Medal.
“Mothers especially have to be aware of this pitfall. You want to be strong for your children and they have so many needs it’s easy to overlook taking care of yourself,” says Ellis. “Your children won’t appreciate you being endlessly self-sacrificing. Be self-respectful and take care of yourself first. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the energy and emotional capacity to give your kids what they need.” This means learning to ask for what you want and learning how to draw healthy boundaries. When you do this, not only will you feel better, you’ll be providing a role model that will help your children learn how to take good care of themselves.
5. Not Putting Your Kids First.
Bad-mouthing your ex, using your children as a bargaining chip, asking the children to report on your ex or asking your children to send messages to your ex puts them in the squeeze position. “You be the grown up. Deal directly with your ex and if you need to blow off steam, talk to a friend or therapist well out of your children’s earshot,” Ellis says.
6. Being Responsible for Your Child’s Relationship With Their Other Parent.
Children need to be able to share what is and isn’t working with their other parent. But beware of the tendency to try to rescue your child from having to learn how to work things through with your ex. “Going to battle for your children doesn’t help them take responsibility for their lives and being responsible is part of becoming a successful adult. Take yourself out of the middle of the equation by saying, ‘Well, Dad’s not going to get the message unless he hears it from you,'” Ellis says. “Of course, if there’s a really big problem, it’s OK to call and say, ‘Here’s what I’m hearing. Let’s talk about how to take care of our child’s needs in this,'” she adds.
7. Living in Chaos.
Your children have two households now. Their stuff is going back and forth. It’s easy for things to get lost and for the structure of a child’s life to crumble under different schedules. Uncertainty and confusion about what stuff is where makes children feel insecure. “You have to put aside your bitterness and anger at your ex and work together to develop a system that will work for your children and make their transition between the two homes go as smoothly as possible,” says Ellis.
Staying away from the pitfalls of single parenting takes a good set of interpersonal skills. Investing in learning those skills will help your children thrive. “The message your children most need to hear during a divorce is, ‘Although mom and dad now live in different houses, we are committed to loving you and will do the best we can to do what’s best for you,'” Ellis says.