Coming to terms with a separation or divorce and making an adjustment over the long run are processes. Just when you think you have it figured out, there is another hiccup or something more monumental, like the other parent taking you back to court over a myriad of child custody issues (which could take another couple years to resolve in the family law courtroom). Many parents go through the typical stages of dealing with grief, much like what one experiences with the death of a loved one.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has conceptionalized the five stages of grief model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Often an effective defense mechanism, denial of our feelings and the delay in fully accepting our circumstances can provide some initial coping when we are confronted with a difficult life change or transition. Yet it is important that we work through this state of denial and face our life as it now is. It is common to move into the next stage, anger, during which we may question “why me?” and struggle with the belief that “it is not fair—this should not have happened.” Many go through another stage, bargaining, i.e. “If only I had done X, Y, and Z, I could have saved this marriage and divorce would not have been inevitable.” The fourth stage, depression, is characterized by profound sadness. People in this stage often experience apathy, negative thinking patterns, and changes in sleep and eating patterns—just to name a few common symptoms of depression. The fifth stage, known as acceptance or what we sometimes refer to “new maturity,” involves a shift in thinking and a resigned attitude toward change.

This is not a linear process, and it is very common to cycle back and forth among these stages, depending on stressful triggers that emerge. Hope is an important thread that can really help single parents get through the grieving process. There are also tremendous opportunities for growth, character building, and learning. How can single parents, who are under a significant amount of stress and pressure, get to the acceptance stage? What does acceptance look like? It involves accepting the reality of what’s now a business-like relationship of raising children in separate households, stepping away from the anger/unresolved hurt, and focusing on the children’s needs in order to make a healthy adjustment. It involves acknowledging the occasional sadness, but constantly taking steps to move on with one’s life and embracing a new sense of family, with a particular focus on parental self-care, the children’s needs, and the co-parenting relationship.

It is very important to keep in mind the following three major factors that have a significant impact on whether children eventually make a positive adjustment post-separation/divorce or whether they suffer long-term psychological, behavioral, and social-relational consequences during their youth or adult years. The good news is that parents have a great deal of control over how they exercise these factors:

  1. Each parent’s own process and ability to adjust post-separation/divorce.
  2. Each parent’s ability to keep the children out of the conflict and out of earshot of any animosity, parental disagreements, court-related issues, and the like.
  3. Each parent’s ability to maintain a firm but nurturing parenting style (easier said than done, when parents are faced with tremendous stressors!).

None of us can be effective parents if we are not nurturing our own needs, especially single parents, who are known to be under more stress and more prone to depression, anxiety, insomnia, excessive alcohol or drug use, and other mental health issues. It is essential that all parents, but especially single parents, engage in self-care on a daily basis in order to recharge their batteries. Only after having done so can they attend to their children’s often complex psychological and emotional needs. Here are some initial guidelines for self-care and attitude adjustment strategies for single parents:

  1. Don’t go through this alone—this is not the time to socially isolate. Make sure to have regular contact with supportive family, friends, support groups, and a personal therapist, if needed.
  2. Develop friendships with other single parents/families for your own sake and your children’s well-being. Knowing you are not alone on this journey can be healing in and of itself.
  3. Take regular time-outs for rest and relaxation. Re-engage in leisure activities and enjoyable hobbies.
  4. Focus on the hopeful and positive aspects of your family’s situation.
  5. Use your sense of humor—it releases tension.
  6. Be playful with your children. Engage them in activities that provide quality one-on-one time without excessive materialism.
  7. If you are dating, be sure not to introduce your dates to your children until it’s a long-term relationship that you expect will last. Your children don’t need another loss in their lives.

Need more support? Come to the Parents Place’s Jewish Single Parents Support Group on the Peninsula. The group meets the first and third Thursdays of the month, 6:30 — 8:30 pm, at Parents Place in San Mateo. Learn more by calling 415-359-2443 or 650-688-3046, emailing [email protected], or clicking here.