Avoiding Common Pitfalls
How to steer clear of common dysfunctions after a divorce.
Single parents typically encounter a number of stressful situations throughout the divorce process. Some of the common struggles and pitfalls include:
Chronic low-grade depression. Feel lethargic? Do things you used to enjoy seem pointless? If so, you might be the victim of an underwhelming depression, one that appears manageable when you try just a little harder. This dysfunctional condition often precedes bouts of overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive TV viewing and browsing inappropriate Web sites. The acid test: Do you consume/watch/read something you don't enjoy just to zone out?
Parent-child role reversal. Losing a mate to divorce or death can drive single parents to swap roles with their kids, with the child as nurturer and the parent as "nurturee." Parents who rely on their children for emotional support often separate from their peer groups and develop an "us against the world" mentality that hurts their kids. To daughters, this mentality can communicate that all men are bad and untrustworthy ("Look at what your dad did to us"). To sons, it can do even more damage — as the next point illustrates.
Mother-son issues. A single mom can become driven to raise her son as her anti-husband, with none of the negative traits of her former mate. To do this, she isolates her son from the perceived corrupt influence of his father and becomes enmeshed in her son's life. Her manipulative subtext: "You owe me for this." In turn, the son milks the system for all he can get. He learns that as long as he appears to be under his mom's thumb, he can have what he wants. Ironically, these over-controlling efforts can bring about what the mom set out to squelch. Eventually, her son can become fearful of any woman having too much say in his life. At best, he will have problems being emotionally open to women. At worst, he may become angry and violent toward women, including his future mate.
What you can do
Steering clear of common dysfunctions is not difficult or time-consuming. Just keep these few strategies in mind:
Express emotions with peers — not with kids. If your children are your main source of emotional support, consider a church counselor or single-parent recovery group instead. Don't choose an opposite-sex adult going through the same situation. Everyone is vulnerable when he is hurt, and it's easy to misinterpret a caring ear as romantic interest.
Listen to your children's feelings. By trying to avoid your own feelings, sometimes you can lose sight of those around you. Take regular time with your kids to talk about how they feel. Use drive time, bedtime or a weekly outing for your listening session. Try to sum up what you've heard them say. Remember, this is a time to understand your children, not fix them.
Keep your word. Children often take on undue stress because they don't trust other people — including their parents — to do what they say they will do. To rebuild your children's trust, keep your promises and be on time. Being a predictable parent can help your children build trust and cure loneliness.
Take time for touch. Hugging, rocking, hand stroking and other affectionate habits will help restore broken trust. Even teens can enjoy back rubs in the privacy of their home. Don't be shy!
Pray for your children. Be spontaneous. Pray as you walk, make lunch, or drive with your children. Be intentional. Each month, write down your prayers and make note of how God answers your requests. In fact, there's only one rule for praying with and for kids: Don't stop.
Set realistic expectations. Since you don't have a partner to share the parenting load, cut yourself some slack. Don't try to do everything, just the important things.
Nurture yourself. Dysfunctional patterns often surface after crisis periods. Instead of eating too much or abusing alcohol, find other ways to recharge. Read a book, take walks, window shop or play your favorite sport. Swap child care with other singles for these special times.
Rate yourself. Write three words that describe what you want your children to think of you. Now write three words you think your children would use to describe you. If the lists don't look the same, take heart. We all have tough times. Just make sure your bad days don't become bad habits. Post your hoped-for attributes where you can see them as a reminder to hang in there.
If your family is dysfunctional — or if you're just trying to head off problems in advance — remember that life offers no guarantees. You left home "half-baked," and so will your children. Do your best; leave the rest to God.
This article first appeared in the August 1997 issue of Single-Parent Family magazine. Copyright © 1997 Dave Carder. All rights reserved.