When Parents are Single, Separated or Divorced

It’s our new reality. Two of every five babies born in America are born to single mothers.  With more than half of the nation’s families now headed by one adult, the single-parent family has become our new norm.   And when that single parent develops cancer, especially if they are seriously ill, the situation can be really tough.

In early childhood, one of the most basic concerns is security: “Who’ll take care of me?”  So, for children growing up with only one parent in their lives, things become very murky and worrisome when that parent becomes ill.

FIRST- Don’t think that because you are a single parent, it is better to try to hide the information about your illness from your preschool child.  Especially in single-parent families, children are really tuned in to any subtle changes in their family situation.

So your children will notice if you look pale, seem moody, seem worried or are more tired than usual.  And that will worry them more than the reality of knowing about cancer.  So, all our suggestions about being honest apply as much or more in a single-parent family as in any other situation.

SECOND – Remember that your preschooler is at a stage in life where the world revolves around him or her.  You may feel like you are carrying the burdens of the world on your shoulders right now, but don’t expect your young child to be particularly empathetic.  You may be tackling this whole thing alone without a partner, and really need your preschooler’s help, but it is unrealistic to expect a high level of attention to your needs.  And actually, it’s more emotionally healthy for your 2-6 year old to be focused on himself rather than on you.

The preschool years are times of significant emotional ups and downs.  Just at a time when your patience and energy is at its lowest ebb, your youngster will demand more time and attention.

And when you cannot provide it at the level that you did before cancer, you may see everything from defiance to withdrawal to temper tantrums.  You may see regression to early forms of self-comforting, like thumb sucking, and you may notice the loss of some developmental skills like toilet-training.  This can happen in any preschooler who has a sick parent or loved one, and is even more likely in a one-parent family.

If you are divorced, your illness may now bring your former spouse back into the family picture, at least temporarily.  Be aware: the change can be both confusing and difficult for your children.  You both must be careful how the divorced parent re-enters the scene, so your children don’t begin to erect a dangerous structure of false hopes.  Perhaps the divorced parent may envision some permanent role, may plan (with your approval) to care for the children if you become too ill.  If so, fine.

But if the return is temporary–Dad coming to help out for a week or two, with no intention of a longer-term commitment–it’s crucial that the children understand.  Both parents must give a very clear message from the start: Daddy’s only going to be here for this week, while Mommy has her operation.  After that, he’s going back to his new family.  Daddy still loves you, but Daddy and Mommy don’t love each other again.  Younger children in particular may make the connection Mommy-being-sick with Daddy-coming-back.  Then your illness may seem an acceptable price to pay.  The child may think along the lines, “It’s worth Mommy being sick to have Daddy back.”  Again, you must both make clear from the start: the situation is temporary.  Daddy is not back to stay.

And what if it’s the non-custodial parent who becomes ill? Depending on how often your preschool child sees his dad or mom, you might be tempted to try to keep this information from your child, thinking he might not notice the physical or emotional changes that often accompany a cancer diagnosis.

But he will notice, and he will take his anger out on you for his sense of confusion about what is happening.  So it’s still not a good idea to try to keep this important family information from your preschooler.

You don’t want your child’s relationship with even an unconnected parent to be tainted by deception or increased conflict.  Sometimes when your ex-spouse becomes ill, he or she finds a new meaning in the relationship with a child, and actually seeks more contact or forgiveness for past omissions.

It is in everybody’s best interest to relax the visitation rules a little, make the time between your ex and the child more flexible, and try to give your ex and your child the chance for a relationship that perhaps they could never have prior to the illness.  Of course, this is all dependent on your assessment of your child’s safety with that parent.

Specific tips and tools for helping your preschooler cope