Helping Single Parent Families (Pedcast)

Many households in the United States are headed by a single parent. In this pedcast, Dr. Smolen explores the impact of having a single parent household on the children raised in this setting.  Dr Smolen gives some practical advice to single parents that might augment their parenting.


Welcome to another episode of

I am your host, Dr. Paul Smolen, by day I am a general pediatrician with 30 years of experience and by night, a blogger. I love that word, blogger.  It sounds so hip.  It makes me sound relevant.

I was reading my “Pediatric News” the other day and I came upon an article by a Harvard Psychiatrist that caught my eye and I thought you might like to hear about it.  His name is Michael Jellinek and in the article he was talking about the psychological impact that single parenting has on children. Since over 50% of families in the US are now single parent run, I thought this would be a good topic to discuss today, and as you will see, this has some relevance for the holiday season which, as you know, is upon us.

So here we go, I am going to give you my take on Dr Jellenik’s article entitled “Help Single Parents and Their Kids Thrive”


As always, before we start let me remind my listeners that my intention in making this pod cast is to give general information about parenting and pediatrics and not to give specific medical advise about your or any other child.  For specific advise with regards to your child, visit the wonderful person you call your child’s doctor.



Unfortunately, many parents find themselves going it alone these days. It is a reality of modern life in this part of the world, that parents frequently live apart. That’s why I found this article relevant and important. I see a lot of families who deal with this issue… that of loss of a parent.  Single parenting is becoming the norm in our society! According to Dr Jellinek, this household configuration can be difficult for both the single parent and the children raised in these households.  Here is the danger that he sees:

It is very easy for a parent going it alone to become preoccupied by financial troubles, stressed by the rigors of day to day life, socially and emotionally isolated, or even depressed. A parent who is enduring such stress, may be less able to meet their child’s needs, both emotionally and physically.  Good parenting decisions would be difficult for anyone under such stress.

With no other parent to fill in the gaps, to keep things more balanced emotionally so to speak, such a child may start to become sad, anxious or withdrawn.

Changes in a child’s mood can interfere with a child’s ability to form a positive self-image, make them less willing to explore their environment, as well interfere with their own personality development.


Do you see his point…the more stressed a parent is, the more effect this has on the children in these households. In a household with only parent in charge, the affect of parental stress is magnified.  Raising healthy children to a large degree depends on having healthy parents.  I often tell parents that in my mind, families are like slinkies…push on one end and the whole thing starts to shake.  In other words, families are intimately interconnected emotionally.

Losing a parent to divorce or abandonment is a traumatic event for all the family members.  According to Dr Jellinek, parents and children go through a grieving process with the loss of a parent just as they would if the absent parent had died.  Abandonment is the chord that is struck… and not a good note to strike at that.


Childhood should be about developing confidence, a sense of independence, and acquiring life skills not about fear of abandonment or struggles with sadness or anxiety.


-Dr Jellinek goes on in the article to point out something that I had never considered:  Certain events in life are reminders of the loss to family members of a single parent household: The 1st day of school, graduations, holidays, and sporting events.  These days must be particularly difficult for both the single parent as well as the children in these families. So what can a parent who finds themselves in this situation do to make things better? Here is what Dr Jellinek suggests:

Recognize that at certain times, such as the ones that I just mentioned, both the child and parent may need extra support… and ask for it!

Unfortunately, these times may be exactly when the worst moment for the single parent.

Therefore, such families need to lean on extended family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles etc..

Expect that a child will grieve the loss of the missing parent repeatedly through childhood.  Questions need to be answered repeatedly in each developmental stage. Let your child have keepsakes, photographs, stories and the like to work through their grief.  Talk, talk, talk.


He also points out that a child may have a particular need for a parent surrogate of a particular sex… by that I mean if the missing parent is a dad, Dr Jellinek recommends that a mom look for a male to fill the void such as a male relative, a male coach, or male teacher.  For single dads, the opposite is true.

Here is the big take home message that I got from the article, It is Dr Jellenik’s opinion that the key to overcoming the grief of parental loss is the mental health of the caretaker parent.  If the caretaking mom or dad is functioning well, then things often have a happy ending for the kids. If not, there is often trouble.  If you are a single parent who is struggling with depression, GET HELP.


Finally, I am going to throw in my opinion on this subject.  I think two parent families are usually better for children than the one parent variety for the reason I mentioned earlier… having two parents involved in a child’s life creates a blunting of parental moodiness, volatility, and anger.  I also think that generally two parents are more likely to make better parenting decisions than a single parent who can only go on their own instincts and perspective.  I also think a child’s sense of security is greater when two parents care for them.  This fact only makes sense.

But, and this is a big but, I think having one healthy, resilient, engaged single parent is much better for children than two angry, bickering, depressed ones… any day.

And if that single parent has an extensive support system from those around them…. Even better.

Children have a lot of work to do growing up.  Having a lot of emotional baggage from their parents can only slow or interfere with that process.



I hope you found that article as interesting as I did.

There are probably opportunities for us all to be more supportive of single parents that we know in our lives.

If you have other ideas of ways to help children who find themselves in single parent households, please write a comment to the blog.  Start a conversation, share your experience…maybe your comment will help someone!

I would also be particularly interested in the perspective of grandparents with respect to today’s topic.

If you find the DocSmo forum interesting and useful, please subscribe and become a regular listener by liking me on face book, following me on twitter, subscribing on itunes or getting the rss feed at directly. Also, make sure to spread the DocSmo word to your friends.

This is Dr Paul Smolen, broadcasting from studio 1E, that’s my 1st child’s bedroom on the east side of my house, trying to bring a little relief if your family has experienced some grief.


Until next time.


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Smo notes:

1. US Census 2012:

2. Pediatric News, Vol. 45, No. 10, pg 16, Dr Michael Jellinek



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