Mental Health and Single Parents

You walk into work after three hours of parenting. You make it to mid-morning, and then daycare calls because your daughter has a fever. You send your boss an email, aware that this is the third time you’ve left early.

dad doing pushups with his daughter on his back

Once you’re home, you find a collection notice from the electric company – all that leaving work early is making it impossible to keep up with bills. You call your mother to see if she can help, but she reminds you that you wouldn’t be doing this alone if you hadn’t gotten divorced.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, almost a quarter of children in the U.S. live in a single-parent household. While single parenthood can be a beautiful experience, it also means that all of the home, childcare, and financial responsibilities fall on one person. Unfortunately, that can lead to mental health concerns for many single parents.

In this blog, we uncover the everyday stressors for single parents and then give you tips for supporting your mental health when you’re supporting young lives on your own.

Common Stressors for Single Parents

For single parents, all the financial, time, and energy demands of parenting and running a household fall on one person. Even when two parents share custody, when the kids are with you, you’re “on” 100% of the time. While the following stressors exist for all parents, single parenthood amplifies their impact on your life.

Financial Strain

Single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty than two-parent households, especially if a single mother runs the household. Even families living above the poverty line are more likely to be low-income when there’s only one adult in the home.

When two parents share the financial responsibilities of a household, or when one parent can stay home and reduce childcare expenses, the family enjoys a higher socioeconomic status.

Little or No Social Support

upset mom holding her baby while she breastfeeds

Living with a co-parent means you have built-in support for things like time to yourself, household responsibilities, and nighttime parenting duties. When you’re parenting alone, you often go without social support for long periods.

Single parents often don’t feel heard and seen in their struggles. Comments such as, “You chose this,” or, “It’s just parenting,” undermine single parents’ difficulties and make it impossible to ask for help.

Even single parents with supportive friends or family members spend most of their time struggling alone because the supportive people in their lives are managing their own families and households and have limited availability to provide emotional or practical support.

Lack of Personal Time

This lack of social support means single moms and dads have less time for themselves. It’s challenging to get out for a night with friends when you don’t have a co-parent who can stay home with the kids. It’s hard to find five minutes to shower when you’re managing your home, working full time, and caring for small people. This lack of personal time can wear on a parent’s mental health.

Responsibility Overload

mom comforting her daughter on the couch

Health care appointments, school meetings, laundry, cooking, cleaning, emotional meltdowns from children, and sibling fights – parenting stress is a normal part of being a caregiver. But, when you’re alone, without social support, all those responsibilities can overwhelm you.

If you live every day, never finishing your to-do list, it’s easy for negative self-talk to creep in and tell you why you aren’t good enough. That’s why mental health care for overworked single parents is so critical.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep is essential to our overall physical and mental health. Parents of young children are no strangers to sleep deprivation, but single parenthood magnifies the struggle.

Without a partner to trade shifts with, single mothers and fathers may suffer headaches, lack of concentration, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.

Conflict with Your Ex

While some single parents don’t have an involved co-parent, many do. Co-parenting with an ex is challenging. You may disagree about parenting time, extracurricular activities, and even finances. All that stress amplifies the difficulties of parenting and makes it harder to enjoy the good parts. It’s best for parents and children if both parties can find ways to work together through mediation, but sometimes all you can do is set boundaries and enforce them. 

Stigma and Judgment

Single parents often face judgment from others and stigma about how well they can provide for their families. This is especially true for single mothers. How others treat them can feed unhealthy negative thought spirals for parents and keep them from reaching out for support. The truth is that children can thrive as long as they have one supportive, engaged, healthy role model. Our focus must be on supporting the health of all parents, not on tearing them down. 

Chronic Stress Leads to Burnout

Without proper mental health support, these stressors can cause burnout. Chronic stress leads to:

upset teenage girl
  • Irritability,
  • Anxiety disorders, depressive symptoms, or other mental illness
  • Decreased immune function, which can increase the risk of illness
  • Lower motivation and creativity
  • Reduced energy, productivity, and creativity
  • Physical health problems like headaches, muscle tension, physical aches and pains, digestive problems
  • Insomnia.

When parents experience chronic stress, they’re less patient, less productive at work, and have less creative energy to live their purpose. Burnt-out parents are more likely to lose their temper with their children and are less emotionally available. Inter-family struggles in single-parent households can increase risk factors for high-risk behaviors among children.

Supporting single parents’ mental health will improve children’s well-being while helping parents reach their own career and personal goals. Supporting the mental health of single parents benefits us all.

Tips for Managing Mental Health

Prioritize Time for Yourself – Guilt Free

When you set aside a few moments for yourself, you’ll feel renewed and better able to manage life with your children. This could mean a few minutes to read a book or an evening with friends. If possible, schedule a bit of time every day.

It’s not easy to find the time when you’re running a household solo, so here are a few ideas for carving out time.

  • Find another single parent to swap child care with.
  • Let the kids have some screen time and use the 24 minutes of a show to read a book instead of doing laundry.
  • Put your kids to bed thirty minutes earlier so you have a few moments to yourself every evening.
  • Join a gym with childcare included in the price.

If you wrestle with guilt over taking time for yourself, try reframing how you think of self-care. Instead of thinking of the time to yourself as an indulgence, think of it as something that allows you to give more to your kids than you can when you’re exhausted and depleted. You’ll also teach your children to prioritize their health and well-being when you prioritize yours. 

Embrace Gratitude and Positivity

Our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviors. If you engage in negative self-talk about your parenting, financial success, or how you manage life, it will become increasingly difficult to build the life you want.

Create a gratitude practice involving meditation, writing, or just saying what you’re grateful for while driving. Then, find ways to reframe negative thoughts into positive affirmations to avoid the negative thinking and emotion cycle. For more on handling self-criticism, read this blog.

Create a Support System

When you first become a single parent, you may lack a support system that meets the needs of your new life. Reach out to family members and friends you already have, but stay open to finding a support group or network of other single parents who understand your unique challenges. If parenting responsibilities limit your ability to get out of the house for social connection, look for social media connections or online support groups.

Set and Enforce Boundaries

The extra demands on time and energy for single parents can mean an increased risk of burnout, so protecting your energy is vital. Do not allow others to take advantage of your time – say no to the PTA, avoid people who pull you into negativity, and share your time with those who fill you up instead of dragging you down.

Create a Stress Management Routine

Learning strategies to manage stress can help you avoid burnout. Stress is unavoidable, and there is more of it when you’re a single parent. Creating a routine you do every day, and one for when you experience unusually high-stress levels, can help. Some things to include in your stress management routine include

  • Get enough sleep – aim for at least seven hours a night. If you cannot manage that because you have young children, or something else going on, find opportunities to nap during the day.
  • Practice relaxation exercises like meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness. You may not like all these options, but find the ones that feel good to you and create a plan for using them daily. You can even involve your kids, so they learn how to manage stress and difficult emotions.
  • Exercise at least 3-4 times a week for your mental and physical health. You don’t have to go to a gym – unless that’s something you enjoy. Exercise can be dance parties in your living room, walks through your neighborhood, or yoga classes you find on YouTube.

Mental Health Care For Single Parent Families

dad holding his son

Quality mental health care for single-parent families requires clinicians who are sensitive to various family structures, well-versed in child development, have experience with a range of mental health conditions, and can adequately support the individual needs of parents while keeping their family’s health in mind. At SMPsychotherapy, we understand parents’ daily stressors, and our mental health professionals provide a safe, judgment-free space for you to discuss the challenges associated with parenting children on your own.

We offer individual therapy for children, teens, and adults, family therapy, and just added a parenting support group for moms who want to learn better strategies for managing parenting struggles and build community with others going through similar life stages. Contact our office today to schedule an appointment for individual or family therapy. To learn more about our parenting support group, led by Alicia Fernandes, LMSW, click here!

Want more? 

For more about thriving in single-parenthood, get on the waitlist for the new book, Unbreakable by Soribel Martinez, LCSW, CEO of SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services. The book releases in Spring 2023. It’s a story of one woman’s journey through adversity and how you can use her principles to build the life of your dreams. Join the waitlist here!

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