Helping an Only Child Through a Divorce

Divorce in a family with an only child may pose unique challenges for both parents and their child.Parents of an only child have a special responsibility. While some may see it as easier to focus on raising just one child, both parents and their child may experience challenges that are unique to their family's situation. If those parents choose to separate or divorce, that pressure will remain but will likely evolve based on the changes occurring in their family. So what are some of these challenges that parents and children in these families face, and how does one address these challenges in a divorce with an only child?

Unique Challenges Experienced In Only Child Families

When parents only have one child, all of their focus rests on that child. Instead of delegating their care and support between multiple children, parents can keep it all concentrated on just one. If they decide to separate or divorce, the way that each parent provides care and support to their child may change completely. One parent may have more physical time with their only child, while the other only has limited time over weekends or during visitations. One parent may be able to provide more financial support to a child on their own, while the other is unable to offer that same type of support on their own. While these examples might not be faced by every family of an only child going through a separation or divorce, they are bound to experience certain changes that are unique to their family's situation. By undergoing changes that impact the level of support as parents were able to provide to their child as a couple, feelings of stress and pressure may begin to rise for everyone.

An only child may experience a sense of responsibility towards each of their parents. The only child loves both of their parents and may see their team of three as them against the world. If their parents separate or divorce, the child may feel a stronger sense of guilt or involvement in the break-up than might a child with siblings. Moreover, they won't have the one-of-a-kind support system that a child with siblings has during this tough time. Once the team of three is broken into two sides, an only child might feel even more vulnerable as though they have lost their allies.

Even as families face these unique challenges, there are strategies that parents of only children can employ to help move themselves and their child forward. For parents, here are seven tips to consider:

  • Talk to your child about the divorce together. Let your child know as much as you can about how this change will affect their life, such as where they will be living and going to school. Giving them some basic information about what will happen right away might provide a tiny bit of relief in the midst of all of the confusion that your child may be experiencing. Most of all, be clear that even though you won't all be living together anymore, you are still a team and will both continue to love and be part of your child's life. 
  • Keep up a routine. Once you have a parenting schedule in place, stick to it. Doing so will help your child to understand the new routine between their two homes and make it easier for them to know what to expect. Also, do your best to keep your child attending the same school, going to the same activities, and seeing the same friends that they were before the divorce. While this change has majorly affected their life, don't let it take them away from the things they enjoy outside of the home. 
  • Encourage your child to spend time with friends. Their peers will provide a special support system that can only be found in interacting with people who are not their parents and are closer to their age. Let your child spend time with friends at your home as well as elsewhere, as it may provide some relief to have fun with friends in different environments. 
  • Reinforce the bond that your child has with both parents. Just because you divorced doesn't mean that the special connections that you both have made with your child must break. When you are each with your child, do the things that you have always done together. Also, consider trying new things to create new traditions and memories that you can share and bond over. Help to reinforce this bond on both ends, always reminding your child that both you and their other parent love and care for them.
  • Be honest but careful not to share too much information with your child. A parent and their only child may find it easy to confide and trust in each other, but parents must be careful not to overshare details with their child that could cause a great burden for them. Be mindful about what you tell your child in regards to your divorce or about your co-parent. Keep these conversations as positive as you are able. Also, don't ask your child too many questions about their other parent. It is not their responsibility to report on the other parent's activity. Make sure that your conversations are still honest and open without taking it too far.
  • Let the other adults in your child's life know what is going on. It may be difficult to tell others about your family's current situation, but talking to the other important adults in your child's life will give those individuals insight into what may be the cause of any unusual behavior they notice in your child and better prepare them to handle it. Consider talking to their teachers, coaches, counselors, parents of their close friends, and any other adults who regularly spend time with your child. 
  • Stay positive for your child. This is a difficult time for you as well as your child, but your child needs you to provide them with love and support. It will only create a larger burden for your child if you lean on them too hard for your own support. Stay strong and positive when with your child. It may be very helpful to you to look for support through other means like close friends or relatives. You may also consider reaching out to a professional such as a counselor or therapist for additional support.

Divorce is never easy for any family to face, and only child families may notice some different challenges that are unique to their situation. By acknowledging the unique pressures that your family faces and considering strategies to help your family move forward in a healthy way, you will be laying the groundwork for your family's success into the future.