Single parenting is not a new phenomenon, but rates are increasing worldwide. South Africa has the world’s highest rate of single parent households (over 60%). Single parents are the norm, not the exception.

Typically, a SA child has a living, but absent, father, and is raised by a mother in a single parent home. Absent fathers is on the increase. African children, particularly in rural areas, are hardest hit, with most growing up fatherless. Self-esteem and emotional development in children are often marred, not necessarily by the father’s absence from the home, but by his absence from their lives.

Over 60% of SA’s children are born to unmarried mothers. Most single parent households are created because the parents were never married. High divorce and paternal death rates due to HIV/AIDS, account for the rest.

SA’s teenage pregnancy rates are very high. Many single mothers fall pregnant as teenagers, or have unplanned pregnancies during their 20’s and 30’s. These mothers are mostly unmarried. Sadly, it is a common phenomenon for women to be abandoned by their partners during pregnancy, or when the child is small. In some cases, mothers choose to separate from abusive and/or substance addicted partners. In other cases, relationships simply irretrievably break down, due to incompatibility, or because the relationship is too new or unstable for child rearing. Our country’s social and economic problems also generate family instability. Unemployment, poverty, abuse, the legacy of apartheid, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and mental illness all contribute to family breakdown.

Many SA children are raised by grandparents, mostly grandmothers. This is mainly due to high parental death rates from HIV/AIDS, orphaning children who often were already being raised by a single parent (usually the mother). Other reasons include labour migration and cultural belief systems which consider it inappropriate for unmarried mothers to raise their children. Child-headed households are another sad reality, seemingly also linked to parental death.

International research indicates that academic success is similar, for children raised in single and joint parent homes. What seems to have the worst impact on grades is not how many parents live in the home, but conflict and instability at home, especially constant arguing or abuse. A child is far better served by living in a peaceful, loving single parent home, than a conflict-ridden, dual parent home. Children in single parent homes often have other important adults in their lives, providing love, attention and support (siblings, grandparents, family members, family friends, neighbours and teachers), as single parents usually have to develop good support systems, to help them cope.

Some research indicates that children living in single parent homes display more emotional and behavioural problems. However, research also shows that conflict in the home (especially between parents) and an unstable home environment causes many emotional and behavioural problems in children. Poverty and poor parental education (in both dual and single parent homes) also seem to contribute to emotional/behavioural distress in children.

Survival tips for single parents:

Parenting is challenging. Single parenting is often even more challenging, especially if the co-parent does not contribute practical or financial support, or play an active role in the child’s life. Unfortunately, this is too often the case. As a result, many single parents face daily financial, emotional and practical struggles, as sole breadwinners raising children single-handedly. Even for single parents with good support systems, there may be little time, energy, or money left over for themselves.

  1. Plan and manage time well.
  2. Prioritise.
  3. Share the load. Develop a good support system, for yourself and your child, and let go of the Supermom/Superdad complex.
  4. Take care of and nurture yourself. You are your child’s most important resource. If you are run-down and unfulfilled, you are depriving your child of the best of you.
  5. Maintain a real connection with your child. Single parenting is tough, but it also provides you with the opportunity to spend time nurturing and enjoying a close relationship with your child.
  6. Set and be consistent about enforcing clear, age-appropriate boundaries, house rules and consequences for your child.
  7. Work actively towards accepting your situation. Once you accept and embrace what is, you are freed from emotional baggage. All that really matters is now.

Struggling to cope as a single parent?

Should you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, shell shocked, and struggling to cope, help is at hand. Contact PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre on (011) 450-3576 for guidance and support.

Data sources: Social Trends Institute’s International Report, 2011; IOL, 2011; South African Institute of Race Relations, 2011.

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