Hope for the Single Parent: How to Overcome Your Biggest Challenges

Boundaries with Teens

By Dr. John Townsend

If you are a single parent, you may need to know something: you have the hardest job in the world. You have to meet all the needs of your kid, over many years, without the help of a spouse. Some of my closest friends are single parents, and my heart breaks with theirs when they encounter the rough years of parenting. Single parenting can sometimes be brutal and overwhelming. That's why it's important to discuss boundaries for single parents.

Many of my friends have also found the balance and resources they need, and they are experiencing success as parents. Their children and teens are doing well and are maturing at the right rate. So there is hope for you as well.

Let's look at some of the biggest struggles single parents face and explore what you can do to meet those challenges:

Single Parent Challenge #1 - Not Enough of You

Single parents have to do the work of two parents, yet they have more limited resources than two-parent families, both in quantity and in ability. This limitation becomes more of a challenge when your kids are teenagers. They push against your authority and limits and assert their freedom in a million ways.

Parents who have a spouse can hand off their teen to the other parent when they are feeling worn out. My wife and I do this all the time. But you can't do this as a single parent. If your teen doesn't let up on you, you don't get a chance to rest and regroup. This can be exhausting, and it's easy to feel you don't have any strength left inside to resist your kid's resistance.

What can you do? The answer isn't trying harder, or using your will power. Instead, realize that you don't have what you don't have. You will need to get from the outside what you don't possess on the inside. You need to do this for your kid, and for yourself as well. Call a safe and sane friend and get your emotional tank filled, and then enter the ring again and resolve the issue.

It's tempting for single parents to think, I am so tired. I just don't have it in me to spend a lot of time talking with my kid. Besides, he's almost an adult anyway, so he probably doesn't even need a lot of me. While your teen is almost an adult, he still needs bonding time with you in order for him to feel safe and loved and to help him sort out the vagaries of teen life. So get some strength from others, so that you can stay attached to your teen.

Keep in mind that you may need to ask another adult, such as a mature friend, youth pastor, or counselor, to intervene. Your teen may be able to hear things from this other person that he refuses to hear from you. Regardless, get connected.

Single Parent Challenge #2 - Rescuing Your Kids From Failure

I recently asked a single mom who is a good friend of mine, "What do you think is the biggest mistake single parents make?" Without hesitating, she said, "Not allowing their kids to fail."

My friend was talking about rescuing young kids and teens from experiencing their consequences. Parents who rescue their adolescents often do so out of guilt. They already feel bad about their kid's situation, and often feel partially responsible that their child doesn't have two parents in the home.

As a result, single parents often indulge their teen and don't enforce the consequences that should come with attitude and behavior violations. They think, My teen already has a strike against her. I'll make it up to her a little by being easy on her. However, this "solution" doesn't solve the problem; it merely creates a second problem. Not only does the teen have to struggle with a broken home, it's likely she will never develop any self-control. Kids from a single-parent family need limits just as much as any kid does.

Surround yourself with guilt-busters—that is, friends who will support you when your emotions tell you you're being too mean. Cry on their shoulder, allow them to give you a reality check, and let them encourage you to love your teen and still hold the line.

I have a single-parent friend who always felt guilty whenever she grounded or took privileges away from her teens. But her kids have grown up, and they have come back to her and said, "Thanks for being strict, Mom. That's why I can keep my own marriage and job together."

Single Parent Challenge #3 - Parenting Differences With Your Ex

Many divorced parents differ in their parenting values. Often, a parent will notice that the child has a bad attitude or misbehaves after she has spent some time with the other parent. You can attribute some of that to the teen trying to adjust and transition between two worlds, and she needs your support and patience on that. But it may also be that your ex is not providing enough structure and consistent limits.

If this is your situation, do all you can to get your ex to agree to put your kid first and to come to an agreement on parenting values and styles. If your teen's well-being is in jeopardy, you may even have to go the legal route for his protection.

If you see some negative effects when your teen spends time with your ex, but they aren't serious enough for you to take legal action, then be the best parent you can be. Be balanced and integrated with love and boundaries. If your ex is a Disneyland parent, don't be the hardnose, hoping to compensate. Your teen needs to be around someone whom she can take inside of herself, who is a picture of maturity, grace, and truth. Don't try to get even with your ex. Get healthy.

Single Parent Challenge #4 - Asking for Help

Finally, don't try to be strong and go it alone. Ask for help from your kid's school, your church, and your friends. Single parents need more help, and they should get more.

God has a special place for you and your children. In Psalm 68:5, King David wrote about how much God wants to provide for kids who don't have both parents around: "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling." Ask God for help, and He will give it to you.


Taken from Boundaries with Teens by Dr. John Townsend. In his book, you will find a lot more information for single parents, including a separate chapter dedicated to step-parenting.

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