The makeup of the “typical” American family has changed a lot in the past 50 years; these days you can find all kinds of different configurations. In 1960, the number of children under age 18 being raised in a two-parent household was 88 percent, according to census data. In 2016, that number had declined to 69 percent. Dual-parent families are still the majority, but being a single parent is no longer as unusual—or as stigmatized as it once was.
There are many reasons why a single parent might be raising a family by her or himself, starting with divorce, death and personal choice. Regardless of the reason, single parents face unique challenges that even the most well-adjusted, tuned-in parent can struggle with. I know from personal experience that single parents need support to make their lives and the lives of their children easier, happier and less stressful.
Here are some ways to increase your child’s happiness if you are a single parent:
1. Create routines.
Schedules and structure make things easier for children because they will know what to expect and that predictability will lower stress for everyone in the household. As my children were growing up, they had a set bedtime and routines that included having lunch boxes and backpacks by the door the night before. We even had weekend routines that included lazy mornings of TV watching and picnic breakfasts.
2. Load up on love, praise and attention.
Many single parents deal with financial challenges and the guilt of not being able to provide everything you or your children might want. Your children do not need lavish gifts, expensive outings, expensive tennis shoes or to go to the priciest summer camp. Instead, they need quality time, affection and memory-making experiences. Consider free or low-cost activities such as going on nature walks and taking pictures or baking several kinds of cookies on a weekend afternoon. You can even make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and deliver them to the local fire department. When my kids and I did this one year, the firefighters let them put on their hats and climb onto the trucks for a photo op—it was a win-win and made a terrific memory!
3. Teach gratitude.
Children in single-parent families sometimes become acutely aware of things they are missing that other families have. I have often heard children complain about having less money, or two places to visit for the holidays, or that they do not have two parents at a school event, etc. If children (or any of us for that matter) spend too much time focused on the holes in our lives we can end up unhappy and even depressed. While these issues may be realities, it is important to take time to focus on the positives. Teach your kids to appreciate what they do have, whether it is the roof over their head; gifts for their birthdays; or a parent who makes them a sack lunch every day, helps them with homework and watches their favorite television show with them. Here is one great exercise to boost gratitude: At Friday night family dinners, go around the table and say what you are thankful for.
4. Pat yourself and your kids on the back.
As a single parent, we are often too hard on ourselves and on our kids. We can get so wrapped up in balancing and juggling it all that we forget to take time out for praise. Give yourself and your children credit for your efforts and hard work. Have an afternoon applause session for you and your child because you quizzed him or her for hours and the result was an A, or because you and your child baked until midnight to get those cupcakes made for the school bake sale. Before dinner each night or even once a week take time out to compliment each other.
5. Connect with similar families.
All parents need some grown-up time, and all children need some time to be influenced and entertained by others. Connect with another single parent who has kids close in age and take turns watching each other’s children, having sleepovers and doing activities together. When my kids were young, another single mom and I did three activities each month: One where I had all of the kids and she had a break, one where she had the kids and I got some grown up time, and one where both of our families did things together. We made sure to plan fun and interesting outings or activities for the kids, such as trips to the zoo or museum or cherry picking and swim races at a local pool. We saved money on babysitting while providing our kids with fun and a close bond with other children in the neighborhood. Plus, they had three fun activities with another family to look forward to each month!
Stacy Kaiser is a Southern California-based licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is the author of How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, and editor at large for Live Happy. As a former weekly advice columnist for USA Today with more than 100 appearances on major networks, including CNN, FOX and NBC, Stacy has built a reputation for bringing a unique mix of thoughtful and provocative insights to a wide range of topics.