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Unintended Victims: Diagnosis & Treatment of Children of Domestic Violence
2 CEUs Unintended Victims: Diagnosis & Treatment of Children of Domestic Violence

Section 5
The Single Parent Family from Each
Member's Point of View

Questions 5 | CE Test | Table of Contents | Domestic Violence
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

It is useful to review the perspective of each family member about the single parent family, beginning with the child.

The Child’s Point of View
Blechman and Manning (1976) noted that the child has several disadvantages in a single parent family as compared to a two parent family. There is one less parent to help solve problems. There is no second parent to appeal unfair decisions. There is less time and attention available. The single parent provides less diverse view points and can train the child in fewer skills.

Schlesinger (1982) asked 40 children, averaging 14.9 year old and who had lived in a single parent household for an average of 4.7 years, their perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of living in a single parent household. It is most interesting that the same items appeared on both lists:

Closer to mother
More responsibility
Helping in household
Get along with siblings
More friends
Trusted more
Moving to new area
Closer to father

Not closer to father
Smaller dwelling
Helping in household
Coming home to empty house
More responsibility
Moving to new area.
Not getting along with siblings
Less friends

It is clear from the above lists that single parenting status can lead to diametrically opposed outcomes. The child may perceive that the loss of a parent can increase or decrease the number of friends. Responsibility can be seen as a blessing or curse.

The Mother’s Point of View
Phelps (1969), in a comparison of mothers’ attitudes toward family life in one and two parent households with nursery school age children, found that one parent mothers tended to be more conservative in their attitudes on 23 atti­tudes than the two parent family mothers. One parent mothers were more rigid about allowing their children to express aggression, about learning about sex, and about willingness to expose the child to adult influences outside the home. They tended to blame adult males for their domestic problems. They expected more rapid physical and psychological development of their children than did the mothers in two parent homes. Many blamed their own parents’ permissiveness for the failure of their own marriage.

Brandwein, Brown, and Fox (1974) noted that single parent mothers are at a disadvantage from several points of view. First, economic power is quite limited. Economic discrimination against women has been extensive documented. The majority of men do not continue support. The courts are reluctant to take legal action against nonpaying fathers. Second, the single parent mother commands less authority in society. They are taken less seriously and are less respected than men. Third, single parent mothers are less likely to obtain homemaking services.

The Father’s Point of View
Relatively little research has been done on the single parent father since the frequency of such families has been relatively low in the past. Schlesinger (1982) listed the problems of single parent fathers, including:
1. Financial problems. (Public assistance may be unavailable);
2. Child care;
3. Social life (fathers rate problems around maintaining a social life while mothers do not);
4. Homemaking (learning basic housekeeping chores as an adult can be difficult, particularly for strongly stereotyped males);
5. Personal problems. (Men in general seldom seek professional help or friends to deal with role strain); and
6. Community support seems lacking to single fathers

Smith (1976) indicated that single fathers tend to adjust well if there is anticipatory socialization, prior experience in child rearing, education in child development, previous participation in household responsibilities, prior participation in child discipline, and prior experience in nurturing the children.

Bray and Anderson (1984) in discussing the problems of single parents regardless of sex of parent, noted that role overload was a common problem. Money was a constant problem. Groceries, meals, child care, and discipline all were demanding. Such parents also felt more intensely the fear, hurt and anger of the children, without the buffer of another parent.

Because there is not another parent to serve as a buffer or source of social support, single parents are more vulnerable to the hurt and anger experienced by their children. Such potential enmeshment may increase the pain of parenting and lead to inappropriate problem solving.

Keshet and Rosenthal (1978) studied 128 fathers with children under seven. These fathers were typically noncustodial, upper middle class professionals. They remained very active and in close contact with their young children. Their initial reaction to single parenthood was the feeling of having failed their children, regardless of whether they had initiated the separation. They experienced significant fear in learning the new roles. They felt overwhelmed at the thought of assuming the parental role on their own and questioned their competence as caretakers.

Frequently, the fathers did not know their children’s likes or dislikes. They found planning, organizing, and anticipating the needs of the children to be difficult.

Ten fathers were studied more extensively. Fathers with less flexible work schedules felt more negative about child care. Initially, the fathers were dependent on the mothers for child care activities. It was not unusual for the mother to initially plan the father’s time with the children and to moni­tor the activities. Gradually, the father became more independent of the mother. The father then monitored the children’s reactions for validation of competence as a parent. Initially he often gave his children too much power in this transition. The father learned to take care of himself in order to create a comfortable environment for the children.

While the Keshet and Rosenthal study provided some information about single parenthood for fathers, it did not study custodial fathers and their role strain. In a study that did look at single parenthood in custodial fathers, Mendes (1976) studied 32 fathers, including 4 who were separated, 7 who were widowed, and 22 who were divorced. Mendes found that whether the father had chosen to be a single parent or not was the most salient factor in differ­entiating the fathers’ experiences. Seekers of single parenthood had strong, positive feelings about being parents. These fathers had been involved in child care from their children’s infancies. All but four of the fathers reported the mothers as inadequate. Mendes further broke the seekers into two groups, the aggressive seekers and the conciliatory seekers.

Aggressive seekers (i.e., those who had obtained custody in an assertive manner, often in disregard for the wishes of the mother) were under 35 and had children of preschool age. Keeping the child had important symbolic meaning for the fathers. This often stemmed from the father’s own traumatic childhood experiences. (This author has noted that the most painful and vig­orous responses to divorce and separation from children have occurred in parents who themselves experienced painful separations as children. The parents cannot tolerate doing to the child that which was done to them.) Often the most aggressive fathers seeking custody are those who felt abandoned themselves as children.

Conciliatory seekers were typically over 30, and several were in their mid­40s. Most of the children were preadolescents. Most had sought custody while still living with their wives. The men were characterized as having few friends or close relationships. The wives had initiated the separation. The rejection by the wife was a narcissistic blow that weakened an already low self-confi­dence in their ability to establish and maintain a love relationship. By being custodial parents, these men were able to avoid the social isolation that would have occurred had the mothers obtained custody. They enjoyed being single fathers.

The fathers who did not seek custody were labeled “assenters.” They agreed to custody, but had not initiated the process. They were older than the seekers, an average of 41 years old. Children ranged from preschool to adolescence. Widowers were included in this group. They did not necessarily enjoy being fathers. Relationships ranged from poor to excellent. Relationships typically change dramatically from the previously intact family.

One particularly angry group of assenters was a group of men who had been deserted by the wife (labeled aggressive initiation by Mendes). These men felt a sense of responsibility toward the children, guilt for former neglect of the children or wives, and fear of retaliation. If the preseparation relationship between the father and children was poor, the relationship was worse after the separation. These fathers had less interaction with their children and felt considerable anxiety about the father role.

Five fathers were categorized as in the conciliatory initiation category. Three of the fathers had always had good relationships with their children. All five maintained friendly relationships with their former wives.

This study raised some interesting questions about how single fatherhood started and had implications for father-child relationship postseparation. The study, however, was based on a very small sample, and breakdowns into four subgroups makes the ability to generalize very limited. While suggestive for further research, caution should be used before assuming that the data could be used for practice. One study that would be enormously useful would be a longitudinal study of how the children developed over time as a function of the type of single fatherhood.
- Hodges, William, Interventions for Children of Divorce: Custody, Access, and Psychotherapy, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Canada, 1986.


Personal Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about single parent families. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Carone, N., Lingiardi, V., Baiocco, R., & Barone, L. (2021). Sensitivity and rough-and-tumble play in gay and heterosexual single-father families through surrogacy: The role of microaggressions and fathers’ rumination. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 22(3), 476–487.

Donald, E. J., & Ceballos, P. (2020). Child-parent relationship therapy with residential care workers. International Journal of Play Therapy, 29(3), 163–176.

Golombok, S., Zadeh, S., Freeman, T., Lysons, J., & Foley, S. (2021). Single mothers by choice: Parenting and child adjustment in middle childhood. Journal of Family Psychology, 35(2), 192–202.

What term did Hodges use to label fathers who did not seek custody? Record the letter of the correct answer the CE Test.

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