The reality of our world today is that most children in America no longer live in a household with their married, biological parents, or what has historically been labeled a traditional family. Nationally, as of 2014, 54% of children were living in a different or non-traditional family structure, with single parents, divorced parents, or non-parental caregivers. One in five children will experience parental separation by age 9. The disruption of the traditional family structure is a loss for the child and is associated with an increased risk for adjustment difficulties such as challenges with academics or depressed mood.
So what can you do to support a child in a non-traditional family structure?
- Practice Self Care
- Find your Tribe: Develop a support system that can help you with everything from sharing advice when things are getting tough to picking up your child after school. Parenting is stressful even in the best circumstances, but you don’t have to do it alone. Unbroken families have a great support structure around them.
- Give Yourself Grace: No one can do everything all the time. Focus on the important things and let the other things go. Find your own balance.
- Take Time for You: Being a parent is an important job, but it is just one part of you. What do you do just for you that is not related to being a parent? Is it book club, study group, bubble baths, walking the dog by yourself, listening to podcasts? Whatever it is, have something that fills your bucket.
- Help your Children Develop Resilience Skills
- Allow opportunities for your children to discuss their feelings about the family change, positive or negative. Be open and supportive while listening. Withhold responses that might be perceived as critical or judgemental of the other parent.
- Expect new feelings to arise over time. You may feel a child has fully accepted the family change, but they may have a negative response at a later time when the child is going through a life change like puberty, graduating from high school, or other transitions.
- Ensure your child has a support system of trusted adults or peers they can turn to in times of need. This can be other family members, school staff, coaches, mentors, other adults, or trusted friends.
- Be an Effective Co-Parent
- Co-Parenting is a way of partnering together to share the responsibility of raising a child. Co-parenting is not advised for situations where there is a safety concern related to a potential co-parent. If safety is not a concern, co-parenting is a way for the child’s caregivers to partner effectively. Healthy co-parenting supports the child and places the best interest of the child first.
- Co-Parents should clearly define the boundaries in their new relationship in a way that allows for all parties to be active participants in the child’s life. Co-Parents should be able to fully support the child together through clear and open communication, ability to attend important events, and ability to address problems related to the child in a unified way. Adults experience many mixed emotions during continued contact with an ex-partner, but those emotions should not impact interactions with the child. Unbroken families always protect the children.
- Be prepared for the questions a child might ask about the family change. Have an age appropriate response ready. Kids will be naturally curious about why their parents are not together. But, they are not prepared to understand the full complexity of an adult relationship until they are also approaching adulthood. If they catch you off guard, it’s okay to defer a response. You could say, “I need to think about that,” or “Let me talk to (the other co-parent).”
- Seek Help when You Need It
- Therapy can be helpful for children who are learning to talk about their feelings with a neutral person. Talking with a therapist can help a child learn to share these feelings in a healthy way with others. Therapy can also help in developing skills for managing these feelings. Revisit therapy as these feelings come up or become less manageable in the future.
- Single or co-parenting adults can benefit from therapy as well. It can be hard to separate the feelings of anger, loss, and sadness for the adult relationship from similar feelings for the loss of the parent-child relationship. Being able to talk to a therapist about your feelings as a parent can help you be more emotionally present for your children.
It used to be popular to refer to children whose parents divorced as coming from a “broken family.” At Crossnore, we believe that no matter the makeup of your family unit, it can be healthy and successful. Utilizing these tips can go a long way towards helping you create an unbroken families.