Helping children understand unconventional families


A single dad has to cope up with work and fending for his little ones. (FILE PHOTO).
Not everyone comes from the ideal family set-up of father, mother and children. More and more parents are raising their children on their own these days, either by choice or due to circumstances beyond their control.

It's no secret that being a single parent isn't easy and the challenges of raising kids, providing for a family and keeping it all together can certainly be difficult, but not impossible. In fact, one of the most important gifts we can give our children is to help them feel good about the uniqueness of their family and help them learn to accept, respect and include people whom they may experience as “different”.

Single parent families can be as a result of the death of one parent, separation or divorce, the child might be a product of an illicit affair between a mother and the child’s father, who could be raising another family or the kids live in families where one parent has to live away from home for work or other reasons.

Growing up in a single-parent home can teach children important life skills but only if they can learn to adjust to major life changes and become resourceful, independent and resilient.

Single parenthood can be a tightrope walk - a balance between the workplace, domestic life and the needs of children prone to act out when there is no dad or mom at home. Parents in such a set-up have a lot of explanation to do to their children.


Challenges for the Children.

The absence of the other parent is sensitive and can affect the emotional wellbeing of the children. These feelings can be pretty strong and they can be confusing, too. The kids might get sensitive because they feel different from all the other children at school or in their neighbourhood who have two parents living at home.

Some kids may also feel upset when their mom introduces them to a man that she is dating and wish they could have one family with both a mom and a dad.

Emotions all by themselves aren't either good or bad. They are just feelings and because living with one parent can sometimes be stressful, it can help to talk about it.

Being treated as an adult.

Being in a home where there is one parent can often mean that these kids are more likely to be involved in helping run the family, eg. Helping out in household chores, looking after younger siblings. These kids are at times expected to look after themselves like preparing their own meals, getting themselves ready for school, looking after their own clothes, etc.

Other challenges included the parent treating them more like an adult, having to make do without some necessities due to scarcity of money as compared to some of their peers, having challenges in complete school assignments due to added responsibilities at home as well as not seeing so much of their parent because he or she has to work and by the time they are home it's almost bedtime.

For those whose parents have separated, they feel torn between mom and dad, especially if their parents are not friendly towards each other and might feel pressured to 'take sides' or feel like 'super spy' when one parent asks about the other.

How to begin talking with your kid about family types.

First, this topic should be introduced casually by striking up a conversation about families at the dinner table or while driving in the car. You can use children's books, TV shows or real families you know to spark the discussion. 

If your son or daughter asks a question like, “Where's my mommy?” or "Who is my daddy?” don't launch into a lecture.

Keep answers simple.

Your 2 to 4-year-old is too young to understand complex concepts. First, let your child know that every family is different, then just respond to the specific question posed.

Know when to leave it alone. 

There's no need to chat about family issues every day or for long periods; take your cues from your child. Learn to read the signs and body language of your kid. When they have already moved on to something else, let it be.

Let kids explore roles. 

A young child from an unconventional family might create a make-believe daddy or mommy. Don't freak out or assume it means he needs therapy. It's a part of imaginary play and should fade with time.

A lot of times we assume there's a deep psychological process going on when really at this age it's about something so much simpler.

Single moms have it very rough to raise children alone especially in their adolescence
Be positive. 

If your son or daughter returns home talking glowingly about a family situation he doesn't have — one with a dad, a mom, or lots of siblings — take it in stride. If you get upset or defensive, your child will pick up on it. Just say, “It sounds like Peter has lots of fun with his daddy,” or “I bet that's a lot of fun.”

Tell the truth and nothing but. 
It might be tempting to tell young children little white lies about where they came from or where an absent parent is — especially if a noncustodial parent has abandoned the family or has struggled with drugs or mental illness. But making up a story is folly.

In this age of the internet, the truth will no doubt come out eventually. That said, you don't have to get into the nitty-gritty if you think it will upset your child or that she won't understand what you are saying.

Rather than telling your child that her father is a drunk or hopeless, you could say, “I'm not sure where he is, but you should know he loves you very much.” Or, if you don't think that's true, say something else reassuring that you do believe, like, “He was very excited when you were born.”


In conclusion.

Children tend to thrive when they come to understand that there are varying family structures and that all families are wonderful, so long as the people in them love and care about each other. This repeated message helps children feel secure, even if their family configuration changes through death, separation, or other life events.

Children in single-parent households may carry more stress especially at school. When they go home at night, they could be serving as the 'parent' while their mom or dad works to support the family. 

They may have additional responsibilities such as cooking dinner or looking after their siblings. 

Another common scenario is that they go home to an empty house for a large part of their after school hours, and experience loneliness or anxiety as a result.

To the Teachers….

Both the parent and their teachers need to support the emotional well-being of children in this situation by going the extra mile to be kind and understanding of their unique situation. If they come to class without homework, the teacher should be mindful and don't berate or put them down in front of their peers. That will only heighten any anxiety or embarrassment they feel. 

Save those conversations for more private conversations, such as meetings with parents. You can even offer to use technology to talk to that student in the evening if they need additional help with assignments, so they always feel supported.

Children of divorced parents may suffer from ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome’. Children who often insult or put down one parent without justification may be suffering from this syndrome and need counseling inside or outside of school to address it.

When you have children in your classroom living with foster parents, they may be sensitive to certain topics that relate to family, their home life or even long-term projects. There may even be other issues, such as abuse, that manifest in a child's emotional behaviour in the classroom.

If you see the child exhibiting unusual behaviors, just recommend for psychological assistance and 
advice.

When working with students from non-traditional families, keep in mind that each situation is unique. The first step is always getting to know your students and their unique situations. You may have to rally all the resources at your disposable to help these students in the classroom.

A little extra effort on your part to keep the lines of communication open, and support them emotionally, can positively impact the student for a lifetime.
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