Helping Divorced Single Moms

As a Christian Counselor I have worked with hundreds of divorced single moms.

This article is directed toward divorced single moms raising children. What I will be writting about is how important it is for a divorced single mom to take care of herself, so she can prevent or reduce the chances of her children suffering depression, anxiety, having an adjustment disorder, lowered school grades, becoming rebellious or defiant.  This talk is about the best practices a divorced single mom can do to protect herself and her children. MAIN POINT-How single moms handle their divorce  makes an indelible mark on their children and it would be best if that indelible mark would be healthy psychological, social and spiritual formation.  And there really are some bad ways, good ways, and some better ways to handle the trauma of divorce.

I’m also not going to write much about statistics although, and these may not be the most current statistics, but they are close:  10 out of 12 million single parent families are run by women.  Also, 84% of children who live with one parent live with their mother.

Since I’m a Counselor, I’m also not going to speak on legal matters. But, if your soon to be EX, says that you don’t need to get an attorney, because it’s less expensive to do it without one, just know that I advise all patients to get an attorney despite their spouses recommendation. My reason is that I have personally witnessed women cry because of the horror of not getting one.  Make sure you find the right attorney. 

I’m not going to write about the suffering and problems unique to widows.  Know that both situations are very horrible. Thankfully, in the same way that the pain from the death of a loved one usually lessens over time, so too should the pain of divorce.  One difference is that in divorce the EX can be a constant, gently speaking, an irritant. 

Let’s not forget the never married mothers and their children.  32% of all births are to unmarried women.  This is a sad statistic, but they chose LIFE. The only counsel I have in these cases is make sure these children never think that they were a mistake.  

Finally, I’m not talking about highly dangerous and toxic EX’s.  These cases should be handled by the police, Child Protective Services and the courts.  

Just like abortion is not a solution, since abortion only causes a second problem.  Divorce isn’t usually a solution, it’s a second problem. 

So many single moms come into my office physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially stressed, exhausted and burnt out.  They are so overwhelmed.  Their divorce stress has turned into distress, making easy situations tough and tough situations impossible.  You expected to marry and have a family, but the tide has turned and you are by yourself in a situation where best practice indicates a couple, not an individual.  You only have 24/7 whereas a couple has 48/7.  A single parent is forced into the role of both mommy and daddy.  Even under the best of circumstances, parenting children takes a lot of patience and energy.  Co-parenting is difficult even when a couple is happily married, but after the divorce, any problems are often exponentially worse.  If two parents have difficulty keeping up with the demands of child rearing, how can one parent not be totally overwhelmed?  Single parenting can be like you are being attacked by a wolf pack.  As soon as you knock off  the wolf  bitting your leg, two more are on your back.  You can only do it for so long. So you have to do things to protect and take care of yourself and your children.

Since there is not a live-in daily dad to tag team the children, even on your most exhausted days you have to pull the energy and motivation out of the dry well of your own souls interior resources, and brave through problems mostly by yourself.  You can’t do everything.  It’s exhausting.  No wonder you’re burnt out.  Burnout can look like depression or anxiety.

When a parent does not take care of their stress they reduce their ability to provide the nurturing and support their children need. There is actually a correlation.  As mis-managed parental stress increases, parental effectiveness decreases.  How can a divorced single mom take good care of her children when they themselves are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted and burnt out?  If you are not taking care of yourself, how can you take care of the kids? 

Divorce often turns your children’s world upside down, causing you to not only work on your personal recovery, but theirs.  Helping your children cope with the trauma of divorce is a priority. 

When a parent falls apart and can’t themselves function, the divorce trauma often is role modeled and transferred to the children.  When a child sees the parent falling apart, how can they feel safe and secure? 

Remember, your children observe how you handle your relationship with your EX.  Your role modeling shapes their formation and their future relationships.  If a parent role models, for example, anger when stressed, well the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, there is generational transmission. Children who wittness toxic divorces often turn into the next generation of abusers.  Abusive parents tend to breed abusive children.  Boys often turn into men who abuse women. Girls often turn into women who are attracted to and accept abusive relationships.

The fact is-children exposed to parental fighting (AND STRESS IN GENERAL) often tend to have more psychiatric disorders.  High conflict parents inflict a lot of emotional trauma onto their children. When a child experiences a lot of parental arguing they often become formed with negative self talk, which is the number one cause of low self esteem. 

Divorced parents can benefit from becoming good at stress management because un-managed stress gets passed directly to the children, not only in their formation, but in their present. 

Through God’s grace and your hard work, STOP role modeling, transmitting and instilling all that into your children.  

ANGER 
Anger is often a natural response to divorce.  Both to the divorcee and children.  It’s easy to become angry because when someone steps on your foot its normal to say “ouch.” The emotional trauma of divorce makes anger flare ups easy.  When anger is mismanaged it can erupt like a volcano and everyone is damaged, sometimes with an indelible imprint, especially with repetitive chroniscity.  Anger (held in) can also create psychosomatic illnesses like headaches and high blood pressure.  Worst case scenario heart attack or stroke. Suppressed anger often turns into depression. Unresolved anger keeps all involved in constant upheaval, distress, and halts forward healing momentum.  It will only hurt you and your children to indulge in your anger and dwell on it. 

Jesus experienced anger in the temple, but then there is the mean nasty, soon to be EX, drunkard expressing anger.  That anger is sinful, its rage is worse, and its wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. WRATH-extreme and fierce anger, deeply resentful indignation.  

DEPRESSION 
Recognizing your depression is a reminder that you do need to take care of yourself.  If you notice these symptoms in yourself or your children, it might be time to consult a mental health professional. The symptoms of depression include: no longer finding pleasure, especially in activities you previously enjoyed; being much more irritable, becoming easily upset, crying or being on the verge of tears, increased sadness and feeling empty; not caring about anything; insomnia; changes in eating habits; physical symptoms like bodily pains; low energy; little tasks take great effort, your concentration is noticeably diminished, making even simple decisions hard, you’re sad and down on yourself.  Things to look for in your children: (All of the above, plus)  extreme personality changes, cutting, expressing pessimism, becoming withdrawn, tired, fatigued, sleeps a lot, and worst case scenario, suicidal thoughts and actions. Wishing they weren’t born, they express the wish not to exist, “I wish I could just go away,” talks about, writes about and draws pictures about death. Sometimes they give away their possessions.  Remember, while anger can lead to homicide, depression can lead to suicide. 

ANXIETY
Anxiety is excessive worry which is intense and can be debilitating. It’s fear to the 10th power with negative expectancy.  (Worry is like a drizzle, anxiety like a monsoon or hurricane) Symptoms include difficulty controlling the worry, feeling keyed up or on edge, is easily fatigued, has difficulty concentrating or mind goes blank, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance (insomnia or restless sleep).

HOW TO HELP  
When do single parents or children need professional intervention? When depression or anxiety effects daily functioning it is already past time to get professional help.  Don’t ignore your own or your children’s feelings. It’s very important to acknowledge them and to constructively deal with them. Regarding the children, trust your instincts, even if your EX doesn’t agree.  If you see their sadness growing in either intensity or regularity, its probably prudent to have a consultation. 

There are ways to reduce anger, depression, anxiety, stress and other psychological pressures. Pressure can be lessened by journaling, exercising, counseling, prayer, a divorce recovery group, getting a hobby, taking a deep breath, getttting a pet, and crying.   

Keep your thoughts under control meaning don’t allow yourself to indulge in revenge fantasies. Having family dinner helps.  Try to eat right and stay hydrated.  Try to get some sleep.  Find healthy support.  Guard your tongue.  Put your children’s needs first.  Make time for yourself. 

Learn to express anger in healthy ways.  Don’t hold anger in and then explode. Talk it out, don’t act it out.  Children who are victims of divorce need to know its okay and normal to be hurt and angry and to talk it out.

Often single parents feel selfish when they do something for themselves.  But caring for yourself isn’t selfish, it’s the best thing you could do for your kids.  If you want your children to be well adjusted and have a balanced life it’s important that you take care of yourself and to role model this (taking care of yourself)  behavior to them.  What I have said 2-3 different ways is - The best way to take care of your children is to take care of yourself. Your children’s health boils down to “How healthy are you?”  Thinking about self care can be the last thing on your mind.  But self care is balance and prevents burnout.  The thought, “I don’t have the time to take care of myself,” is a temptation to destroy you and your children.  Self care is your responsibility, its not an option.  Despite the myriad of activities: like coping with legal issues, co-parenting, having lower income, being single in a married world, dating, remarriage, blended families - which can all be land mines, still taking time for yourself must be a priority.  For the sake of the children.

Try not to let your trauma and hurt feelings toward your EX spill over into a continuing antagonistic post marriage relationship which negatively effects your children.  Your job is to raise healthy children, not continue the drama with your ex. The post-marriage relationship should not be based on an eye for an eye.  When it is, the children suffer.  It’s very normal after divorce to focus on the past.  Even though its normal it is not good. Try to reduce the amount of time spent thinking about divorce related matters.  Be focused in the present.  Your life is what it is right now.  In order to move forward, you need to accept life as it actually is in the present circumstances, in the here and now.  Wallowing in the mud of the past is counterproductive for you and your children. 

The quality of your life after the divorce depends on how you handle the divorce process. There can be a good life for you and your children after divorce.  It’s not about coping strategies, its about living in God’s strength. Pray for the virtues of courage and perseverance.  With courage, perseverance and God’s grace single parenting can work. 

Start by respecting your EX and children’s relationship.  At least, don’t sabotage it.  You may not agree on child rearing practices, but your EX has the right to try their best without your interference.  Sin is the exception, well breaking the law also. So don’t pass judgment on how your EX runs his household.  Stop trying to control your EX or to exact revenge.  The EX may have been a bad spouse but can still be a good parent. 

You can actually turn your children against you by acting revengeful toward your EX.  Try your best not to talk bad about your EX in front of the children.  Start by never badmouthing your EX in front of them.  Best practice is never ever.  If you don’t have anything nice to say about your EX, don’t say anything.  It’s also important to avoid arguing with the other parent in front of the children.  If you want to argue, don’t create additional drama in your child’s life, do it outside of their presence.  You may have to stop communicating as often, limit it to emails.  I don’t recommend texts.  

Your children need to understand they can’t fix the divorce and that they didn’t cause it and that you and your EX both love them very much. Children can fall into the temptation of worrying about whether their parents will stop loving them.  They have already eye witnessed that a parent stopped loving the other.  Letting your children know that you will always love them, that the divorce isn’t their fault, will help them tremendously. 

Your children also need to be able to talk to you about the parent who is absent from the home. Give your child permission to talk about the one who’s missing-their missing parent.  Allow them guilt-free access.  They need to know that they can call dad anytime.  You take a huge pressure off your children by granting them free access. Sometimes they want to talk with their dad but refrain because they don’t want to make you cry. 

There are many healthy things you can do to promote your children’s healthy adjustment.  Create as much structure as possible to counterbalance the divorce’s instability.  Keep the children reasonably involved in pre-divorce extracurricular activities.  Family time shouldn’t be replaced by sports or activities outside the home. Most importantly, don’t stop going to church, even though you are exhausted or mad at God.  Even single parents are tasked with remaining in fellowship with Him.  Again, for the sake of the children.

Now, you can’t do it all, but you can do what matters most.  Single parents, best practice, focus on the things you must do, not the things the children impulsively would like to do.  Lower income means your kids may not have the things they are used to.  Try hard not to guilt yourself into excessive credit card debt. 

Moving back home can, worst case scenario, be very problematic, but on the other side of the coin, it can help financially, with babysitting, taxiing the children and letting the children experience the male/female couple. Healthy family support can be a great help. Nevertheless, generally, it is be transitional.  And the transition should be quicker, the more Grandparents undermine you as the one raising your children.  If your parents shame you for your decisions and they tell you how to run your life and your kids, coercing you to relinquish your parenting responsibilities to them, move out as soon as possible.  Also, allow children access to your EX’s parents, the children’s other grandparents.  

What’s best practice for parents sharing their personal feelings about the divorce.  Done with prudence, its good.  Talk with friends, family, God, and if necessary a counselor and/or priest. Since it says in the New Testament that evil companions corrupt good morals, choose your support people wisely, make your support group full of positive encourages.  Try not to associate with people who will; only encourage and reinforce your post marriage enmity.  Don’t include toxic people who only throw gas on the fire.  About your children. Pour your heart out to the Lord, not your children.  Don’t make your children  part of your support group.  As parent, you’re their support, not vice versa.  They need you as a parent.  Don’t overwhelm children with too much information, especially grown-up information. Even though they may intellectually understand, it could emotionally devastate them.  

Find books for your children to read which are age appropriate.  Age appropriate books are a good way to initiate conversations with your children.  It is easier for children to talk about tough issues if they can be one step removed.

DISCIPLINE
In the Book of Ephesians, it states, "Children, obey your parents, this is the right thing to do because God has placed them in authority over you".  Also, the fourth commandment instructs children to honor and obey their parents.  Adults get this, but children, not so much. When children get angry they can become defiant and disrespectful. Best practice is to not take the offense personally, up to a point.  Do you really need to impose a timeout or to take something away when your child crosses the line?  Yes.  Please note that discipline doesn’t have anything to do with anger.  When you discipline, stay calm and be consistent.

SUMMARY

Remember, these are best practice guidelines.  Just do your best.  All one can do is their best in God’s strength, to manage their own stress and their children’s.  This won’t make all problems go away but it can reduce their frequency and intensity. 

God promises that he won’t give us more than we can handle, despite our subjective experience of the pressure being over the top, but He has given us resources to help.  A single parent can be helped by God’s direct intervention, by your self directed efforts (prayer and reading books), friends, family, a counselor, clergy, or faith community. 

Remember - Parents can say all the rights things but they must practice what they preach as well as walk the talk. Children’s observations of parental interaction trumps any teaching. 

As a divorced single mom you have a hard and difficult choice.   Either be stressed and overwhelmed diminishing quality time with your children.  Expend your limited resources of energy focusing on problems.  Create additional problems due to burnout.  Hang onto your anger.  Allow your feelings to destroy you.  Let your children see you fall apart.  Or, successfully adjust and be healed, and role model, to your children, emotional stability amid the divorce trauma. 

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