Imagine this: you’re the sole parent for your children. You get them up, get them fed and send them to school. You do the housework, maybe you go to work yourself, you get home and you’re still the only adult there. There’s no one to relieve you. No one to pass the baton to while you take a shower or take a few minutes for yourself. You make dinner and gather the family around the table to eat. You play with them, read to them, give them baths, get them to bed and there’s no one there to sit with and process your day. There’s no one there to laugh with you or pray with you. Instead you keep working. You clean up the house again. You pack lunches for the next day. And you eventually crash into bed, knowing you’ll be doing the same thing tomorrow.

For many, this is not an imagined scenario. When you parent alone – whether due to divorce, the loss of your spouse or having a spouse who works away from home for long periods of time – trying to accept your new family situation can be an overwhelming reality. While parenting is an incredible joy, there are times when it’s just survival.

In her nearly 20 years as a single mom, Mary* found that the following strategies helped her and her kids not just survive, but thrive as a family. Read on for 10 tips that will help you create opportunities to strengthen the relationships between you and your children, your children and God, and you and God.

1. Take care of yourself

"Remember when you got on a plane and the flight attendant gave the safety lecture about putting on your own mask first, and then your child’s mask next?" marriage and family therapist Gary Brown frequently asks single parents. "There’s a reason for that. If you aren’t being taken care of, then you may not be able to take care of your child."

This is something Mary had to learn to do when she found herself a single mom. For her, this meant taking the time to mourn the loss of her marriage, finding ways to recharge with a walk or gardening, and even giving herself time outs when she felt overwhelmed.

2. Take time to grieve and help your kids to do the same

Mary knew that if she didn’t allow herself the opportunity to grieve, she would push herself too hard, do too many things, and eventually burn out and be of no help to her kids.

"Take time to grieve," she advises – whether you’re grieving the loss of a marriage, the loss of a spouse or even the loss of having your husband or wife parent with you because they work out of town. "Do it after the kids go to bed and be sure to let yourself cry. If you don’t, you’ll be tempted to lose yourself in other things."

Though she’d keep her true grief for after the kids went to bed, Mary was sure to model healthy grief for her children, encouraging them to process in their own way. "When they got old enough to write, I’d get them to write and draw out their feelings," she explains. Finding ways to express grief – even if it means seeking counselling for yourself and your kids – is the first step in moving forward as a healthy family.

3. Seek counselling – for you and your kids

After her divorce, Mary wanted each of her kids to have counselling so they would be equipped with the tools they needed to process the many emotions that were stirred up.

"Licensed counsellors who have specific education, training and experience working with parents can be very helpful," Brown suggests. "And it doesn’t all have to be about the pain! You will likely discover some very new and exciting things about yourself as a single parent that will improve not only the quality of your life, but that of your child as well."

4. Teach and model forgiveness

"I always encouraged my kids to forgive both myself and their dad, and to look to God as the perfect parent," Mary notes. "I reminded them, too, that forgiveness is a continual process – it’s not a one-time thing. And it’s not saying that what happened to them was okay; it’s releasing that person to God and being free from bitterness."

Modelling that forgiveness by honouring the other parent is also crucial. If your kids see you holding grudges and speaking poorly of their other parent, seeds of bitterness are going to be sown.

So create opportunities to help your kids forgive both parents and encourage them in each of these relationships. Being open about how forgiveness first comes from God will also help you model this behaviour for your kids.

5. Make sure your kids know it’s not their fault and let kids be kids

"I always made sure to tell my kids the divorce was not their fault – none of it was their fault," Mary explains. "Kids will immediately blame themselves, and they need to know this isn’t a burden they’re to carry." She also adds that this meant continually reminding her children that she was there to stay and take care of them.

"They need reassurance that you will not leave, and they need to make sure you can handle it," she says. "Even if you have to fake it. Don’t let them take on adult responsibility."

Your child is not your confidante. They are not your partner. They are not an adult. Their world has just been shaken which means, even more, they need to be given time to be a kid.

"Young kids especially need playtime," Mary suggests, "because that’s how they process their emotions." She advises, too, that this means hands-on play, not screen time. Watching TV is a passive activity, but playing with dolls, reading, building with blocks – or, for older kids, playing sports and having a creative outlet – will give your kids an opportunity to process their emotions, understand their world and recharge.

6. Don’t forget to discipline your kids

"Don’t succumb to the guilt that single parents often feel in this situation," Brown warns. "There can be a tendency to over-indulge our children because we think that we need to make up for the fact that we are the only parent . . . They are going to need to develop the ability to be more independent now, and that means taking care of things that are age appropriate for their own self-care." He suggests that, when they’re old enough, give them responsibilities like making their bed, cleaning their room or taking out the trash.

"They may not like doing these things," Brown adds, "but it will help them to become more self-sufficient in the long run and in the short term, help relieve some of the burdens of being a single parent."

7. Make your family a team

Mary also found that giving her children chores, as Brown suggests, reinforced the idea that her family was a team.

"Give your children responsibility so they know they’re part of a family and you all have to help each other," she suggests. "For us, making a chore chart meant that each of them had a role to play in the team. It gave them a sense of confidence because they were responsible for something – vacuuming, washing dishes, dusting. It can be something simple, but it has to be something."

Mary also made sure everyone attended each other’s events. "When my son didn’t want to go to his sister’s band concert, I told him that we are here to cheer each other on," she remembers. They may drag their feet, but they’ll feel a swell of pride when it’s their turn to look into the audience and see their whole family supporting them.

8. Learn the value of routine and traditions

By creating routine and consistency, Mary helped her kids normalize their new family situation.

"Routine is very important," she notes. "It gives kids security, especially when their lives have just been turned upside down. Sit around the table to have dinner, help with homework, make lunches with them – have a specific routine every night."

Mary also valued traditions in her house – especially when it came to making new traditions and getting the kids involved. "For holiday dinners, everyone would help me make a different part of the meal. We’d also create special traditions unique to Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving and their birthdays so they’d have something to look forward to. In the summers, we’d go camping and hiking. And every morning as I drove them to school, we’d pray in the car."

9. Find a trusted community for you and your kids

"Being a single parent can feel very lonely," Brown explains. "One of the very best things you can do to combat the loneliness is to join, or even start, a group for single parents."

You can also find great groups at your church – especially if you can find one with childcare.

And be sure to find a community where your kids can feel a sense of belonging free of shame or judgment. It’s also helpful to find other adults who can act as mentors in their life to affirm and support them.

Mary found it was most helpful to have a few good, close friends. "You don’t have time for too many," she says. "You need a mentor or friend you can call day or night when you’re feeling discouraged; someone who will pray with you and offer perspective – or even just a listening ear."

10. Show gratitude and lean on Christ

Ultimately, no matter what you and your children are facing, the best thing you can do for them is strengthen your relationship with God. Doing this will give you the grace, wisdom and strength to guide your children through the difficulties that lie ahead as well as fill you with the joy to make the most out of every family memory.

Mary continually remembered the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."

When you’re continually looking to God and finding ways to be thankful, you’re arming yourself against the temptation of jealousy, self-pity and discontentment. And your kids will take notice.

"I always wanted to make sure my kids knew they were a blessing and not a burden," Mary recalls. "I tried to show them with actions and tell them with my words."

Having a stronger relationship with your heavenly Father will help you take care of yourself, grieve, forgive, guide your children and help your family not only survive, but thrive.

If you or someone you know would benefit from speaking with someone on our counselling team or you'd like a referral for a counsellor near you, please call us at 1.800.661.9800 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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