Challenges of Single-parent Families Due to Death or Separation

This article is part of a special series focusing on common challenges faced by Australian families.

Other articles in this series include:

  1. Challenges of Blended and Step “Remarried” Families
  2. Challenges of Same-Sex Couple Families
  3. Challenges of Families Who Experience Domestic Violence
  4. Family Issues When There is Disability, Illness, or Serious Injury
  5. Challenges of Families with a Parent Working Away From Home Base

In this article we will explore challenges faced by single-parent families due to death or separation. But before we dive into this subject, we encourage you to explore a little background information that will set the tone for the series. First, we recommend you read the article Trends and Statistics of the Contemporary Family to understand some of the emergent trends and statistical truths about the “modern family unit”. After you have read this article, return to this section as we explore another background concept for the series: the functions of the family.

Functions of the family

If you are intending to use your helping skills to boost challenged family systems to greater workability, then one chunk of information is vital; you must know what functions a family should be performing for its members – and hopefully for all of society – when it is working well. Patterson (2002) has delineated four core functions by which we can separate the flourishing family systems from those units which may only be limping along, or worse, failing altogether.

Function One: Family formation and membership

At birth, we come into a particular tribe, the members of which we later come to call our family. Our early developmental tasks revolve around learning how to become an accepted member of the tribe. Survival literally depends on our ability to: (1) negotiate inclusion into the tribe; (2) persuade other members of the tribe to meet our needs; and (3) carve out for ourselves an individual sense of personal and social identity, from which we will derive a sense of belonging.

The capacity to successfully accomplish these tasks of membership, while not taking on too many of the tribe’s toxic beliefs, will determine our foundation of individual safety and give us a sense of purpose and meaning, but its importance goes beyond that. Achieving family formation serves the wider community by continuing the species or – in the case of overpopulated areas – controlling reproduction.

Function Two: Economic support

The tribe has a duty to its members to support them in a material sense. Even in non-human families, the mother dog has puppies sucking at her teats and the mother bird prepares the nest, bringing back morsels for the hatchlings. In the human family, economic support means supplying needs for food, shelter, clothing, and other resources necessary to grow and develop, and to conduct a healthy, happy life. Perhaps news broadcasts of starving children fleeing from drought-stricken, warring regions are so evocative because the thought of not having our most basic physical-material needs met strikes deep chords of compassion or even fear in our hearts.

Indeed, it is through the ongoing contribution of the family to our material sustenance that enables us, eventually, to give back. As well-nourished, cared-for human beings – even before we are adults in the working world – we are able to contribute meaningfully to our world, and we are less in need of being propped up with public resources, so society benefits, too.

Function Three: Nurturance, education and socialisation

Even when little ones are being physically provided for, they will not thrive if they are not nurtured. So important is this concept that a major hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico (in the United States) has for many years had a voluntary “infant cuddling” program. Newborns which must live in incubators for several weeks or even months (and whose mothers may have long since been discharged from the hospital) are given over to volunteer coddlers, who – through their gift of time spent holding and talking to the infants – help the neonates to thrive through the long periods of maternal absence.

Psychological nurturance, in the form of affection, caring interaction, and cognitive stimulation, lays the foundation for psychological, social, and spiritual development to occur. Interestingly in terms of family dynamics, this function serves not just the children in the family unit, as recipients of the nurturance, but also the adults, who through learning to provide the nurturance and socialisation are likewise enhancing their own psychological,social, and spiritual development. Embedded in the educative nurturance is the capacity – and responsibility – to instil in children the norms and values held to be important by the greater community. Thus in Function Three we see the family preparing children to take up productive adult roles in society and teaching them how to avoid antisocial behaviours. Obviously, the family serves the wider community through this function by protecting it from the harm that would occur were its members not socialised.

Function Four: Protection of vulnerable members

Individual family members who are young, disabled, sick, or otherwise in need of care can rightfully expect to look first to the family for protection until they are able to become more self-reliant. This fourth and integral function of protection both distinguishes a “family” from other informal social groupings and also is a litmus test of its basic functionality. That is: can a given family protect its members? Does it possess the resources and the will to shield the individuals in it from the harsher vicissitudes of life?

Obviously the more that the family can take on this function, the less society is called upon to do so. Paradoxically, in the chicken-or-egg-first question that is family/society effectiveness, the more affluent the wider community is, the more easily families in it can aggregate the resources that give them scope for protecting their members. Thus, it is true that to extend social support to a family sends assistance “down” the social hierarchy to its individuals, but also “up” the chain to the whole community. The primacy of the protection function of families can be seen in the fact that in developing and less affluent societies, there is sometimes no dole, no welfare state, and no expectation that the state will necessarily support someone should they stumble. But in these countries families tend to be especially resilient

The dynamics of transition: what’s at risk?

What does it mean to become a member of a family? Do you belong to a family because you live at the same address as others? Are you deemed a family member because of blood relationship? Adoption? Because someone you were related to married, and you got dragged along? Or do you experience family “membership” in a deeper way: a sense of roots, heritage, cultural legacy, and perhaps inherited talents and tendencies? Then again, might you have a sense of belonging to a family because they brought you up, providing for you, protecting you, and educating you? The answers to these questions impact on those things you might expect to be jeopardised if your “family” situation – however you define that – were to change. In this series, we will see how contemporary transitions create risk in each of the situations we explore.

Throughout the series, please keep in mind the four functions that families are meant to carry out, as detailed above. We’ll point out salient instances where a function may be at risk in the family situation being studied. In other instances, the dynamics in a given situation cross over several functions, and the family is in jeopardy on account of multiple factors. In all cases, we can gain a deeper understanding of the challenges of family transition by cross-referencing the dynamics at play (that is: what is happening) with the presumed functions of family (what ought to be happening). First, we explore the family who becomes a single-parent unit.

Single-parent families due to death or separation

If two people getting married and having children is the process of forming a family and thereby imparting a sense of membership, then divorce of the parents or the death of one of them is the process of family de-formation, and the question of where one belongs as a “member” becomes unclear. Especially in the case of separation, where the non-custodial (or less-often custodial) parent is still alive, but not a member of the household anymore, children may wonder who, exactly, their family members are and where they, the children, belong. Function One may need to be re-negotiated, as both children and custodial parent re-define how they get a sense of belonging and identity, given that the family “team” is now configured differently.

As to the death of a parent, there are few events more significant in the life of a family. Yet this one event probably holds greater diversity of meaning for its survivors than any other, depending on the age, level of individual development, and stage of the family life cycle. For a young child to lose a parent is unthinkable; it changes that child’s life forever. When the parent is an elderly adult with older adult children, that death is somewhat predictable and is a normal part of the life cycle.

For children to lose their caregiving mother has a different impact than to lose a father who may love them, but is not involved in their care. And the gender of the child losing the parent determines still other aspects of membership and loss, especially if “membership” in the tribe now will be connected to different role expectations, such as the unspoken expectation that young boys will become “the man of the house now that Daddy is gone” or that young girls will take over greater than age-appropriate domestic responsibilities “because Mummy isn’t with us anymore.”

With both death and divorce, it is not just Function One which goes awry. The whole question of Function Three – how remaining household members come to be socialised (re-socialised) – comes into play, and often calls for a radical (if unconscious) re-organising on the part of both the custodial parent and the children. It is crucial to outline the challenges, however, because the number of single parent households has more than trebled since the eighties (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005), with nearly a million lone-parent households in Australia in 2006, most of them headed by women (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010).

The issues that single mothers face differ significantly than those of single fathers. In this discussion, we focus more on the issues of single mothers, partly because they are usually the custodial parent in the case of divorce, and partly because they are more likely than fathers to be poor, struggling to fulfil Function Two (economic support).

Whether single by death or by divorce, the parent who is now raising the children alone faces an overwhelming task, often in the context of an unsupportive community. There is an overload of child care and household chores and limited time and energy for the parent to develop her own activities, or even meet her primary psychological needs. And, mostly, life is a struggle to make ends meet, let alone provide the “nice-to-do” luxuries, say for the children, that help ensure social acceptability. Beyond the day-to-day struggle, single parents fight the societal expectation that coming from a single parent household means that the children will be worse off. Yet studies which have accounted statistically for the overwhelming presence of poverty in lone-parent households show that, once eliminating that factor, differences in adjustment between two-parent and one-parent households all but disappear (Simons, 1996).

Thus, if we are supporting a single-parent household, we can take heart; it is possible for children to grow up in a family with only one parent present and survive intact. But they have a hard row to hoe, and here are some of the likely challenges that they will face.

Problems for the children

Commonly, children of lone-parent families, especially in cases of divorce, have suffered poor academic performance, low self-esteem, behavioural difficulties, and interactional problems with their peers (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994a). In research conducted over ten years, McLanahan and Sandefur (1994b) found that, other things being equal, teenagers who spent part of their childhood apart from their biological father were twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to become parents themselves before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be “idle” (defined as neither employed nor attending school) in their late teens and early twenties.

The authors found that single motherhood is what hurts, because it often means that Function Two of the family (economic support) cannot be implemented. Children are deprived of economic resources because many, if not most, single mothers tend to have low incomes. McLanahan and Sandefur found that low incomes and sudden drops in income are the most important reasons that children in single-mother families fare worse than other children, accounting for about half of the disadvantage in the question of graduation from university (or not).

Further, lone-parent households have fewer parental resources to go around. As cited above, the overwhelming amount of childcare, domestic chores, and – for many women – working hours combine to mean that the children get inadequate attention and guidance from the parent. It is not difficult to infer the disadvantage to children whose mother does not have time to help them with their homework, read to them, or ask about how their day at school went. Also, children need to be supervised in their time out of school, and working, overly-busy parents often do not have time to do this.

Finally, the lack of behavioural competency and social problems of the children are partly traceable to the fewer community resources that single-parent households often enjoy. That is, with lower income, they are likely to live in less affluent neighbourhoods, and associate with peers who have negative attitudes toward school. They are more likely to be mobile, changing residences frequently; this disrupts both academic work and the development of peer relationships (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994b).

Problems for the parent (mother)

Most people, women in particular, want their relationships to succeed, so when the relationship does not work out (usually for a good reason, such as abuse, abandonment, or unreasonable conflict) both partners may face fallout from disappointment, loss, and censure from those around them for having “failed”. If there are children, the woman also faces criticism that she has failed at her “primary” mission: that of being a good wife and mother.

As noted, a woman often comes into a situation of needing to work longer hours for far less pay than what her household enjoyed with the man’s income. Beyond that she is often less emotionally supported than before, both for herself and in her role as a parent. All of this makes a single parent vulnerable psychologically (McLloyd and Wilson, 1990), meaning that she not only is limited in extending support to her children, who are also vulnerable, but that in addition, she is not receiving support for herself. Thus Function Four of protection to the vulnerable is not being fulfilled.

Turning to the social arena, we see that there are further problems for the single parent family. Perhaps more than many configurations of family, single parent households are highly influenced by their social context, whether it is supportive and enriching, or judgmental and isolating. Some families are lucky to have extended family support, with many relatives living nearby, or sometimes in the same home. In general, those women who are embedded in a solid network of social supports are less vulnerable (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005). This does depend, however, on the quality of the relationships. Sometimes extended family members are a source of stress, through criticism, loyalties to the father of the family, colluding (“triangling”) with the children, and sometimes further depleting the woman’s time and energy through requests for help of various sorts, without giving support in return.

The newly single mother – or father, for that matter – must factor in ways to allow ongoing involvement of the children’s other biological parent, although that can create numerous challenges. The other parent – say, the father – may not be interested in contact. If there is interest, however, the mother or custodial parent must work with potential feelings of resentment, irritation, and dislike, plus the sense that the other parent is troublesome and/ or irrelevant, to help the children have that all-important bond with that parent.

Those becoming single parents might need assistance in examining how their changed status will affect relationships with friends. Some people conclude that a single person will be uncomfortable in gatherings where everyone is paired up, and they thus fail to extend the invitation. Also, after a divorce, there is the dilemma for some friends of whether to include this partner or the other one in the social circle, as any invitation to one may be seen as disloyalty to the other one. Moreover, even if old friends are still available (which they are not if relocation has been part of the transition), there is the potential issue of whether the friends are sufficiently sensitive to the new problems of single parenthood.

Many single mothers find it difficult to reach out to former friends for help, for reasons of pride, feeling “failed”, not wishing to burden others, or fearing rejection. When women have not been well connected socially, they can be encouraged to begin establishing new socially supportive networks, but the reality of single parenting is that doing so takes precious time and energy. Many parents feel lucky just to survive the day, collapsing on the couch at the end of it. Going to some group or meeting would seem like just another chore to complete on the never-ending “to-do” list.

Problem for the whole family: the establishment of authority

Finally, when a new, single-parent family is forming, the head of that family has the crucial task of establishing authority as the head of the household. For men, doing so may not be an issue because typical gender roles assign to men the responsibilities of being the disciplinarian and head of the household. For women, however, it is frequently another story. Especially in cases where a woman comes into the relationship straight from living in her family of origin, not having lived independently, she may struggle with doing the disciplining and limit-setting that she relied on her partner to do. She may be further constrained by depression and a sense of loss after the breakup of the relationship or death of her partner.

Perhaps the most common error women make as they transition into a single-parent family is that they are too permissive with the children, trying in some way to compensate them for the disadvantages they believe the children have experienced. This can result in inappropriate tolerance of children’s acting-out behaviours, and leads to greater behavioural problems down the track. All children need the security of boundaries (structure), stability, and predictability (shown in consistency of parenting efforts).

Children going through a transition or otherwise distressed children need these qualities even more. Clear familial authority and boundaries are not only key elements for maintaining the family structure and thus, children’s wellbeing; they are essential for the mother’s sanity as well! At a basic level, children need to know who makes the rules, who is “in” and who is “out” of the family, and what is permitted. Although not easy, this aspect is crucial for laying the groundwork for the newly-formed lone-parent family to get along together (Carter and McGoldrick, 2005).

We have outlined many of the salient issues facing single-parent families as they transition from a two-parent household. Suffice it to say that it is possible for children of such families to adapt and grow into intact, healthy adults. It is possible, but it isn’t easy. Much work is needed on the part of all, and correspondingly, there is much scope for your input if you would contribute social support to such a family.

This article was adapted from AIPC’s MHSS Specialty Course “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information, visit


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