Single-parent families with adolescents: parents' perspectives of their personal and parenting experiences




Hamilton, Sandra Jean

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A descriptive research methodology based on the principles of symbolic interactionism was employed to explore and explicate the meaning of experience of single-parenting with adolescents. Prior research has indicated that single-mothers experience more psychological and emotional problems than two-parent mothers, and that adolescents from single-parent families have more behavioural, emotional, and academic problems than adolescents from two-parent families. However, recent studies have reported that family processes, such as parent-adolescent relationships and parenting styles, rather than the family form itself are more strongly related to how adolescents adapt in single-parent families. As well, the meaning of the economic, social, and family challenges faced by single-parents affects their psychological well-being and their parenting abilities. Single-parents (n=16) were interviewed twice using an interview guide which comprised the basic conceptual domains of the study. These domains were challenges to single-parents and their families, supports needed, family structures and processes, parenting issues, parents' perceptions of their adolescents' adjustment, and the single-parent "self". Other data sources were utilized to triangulate the data to add depth and credibility. Means of triangulation included a focus group (n=10), interviews with adolescents (n=6), and interviews with key informants (n=5) who encounter a broad range of single-parent families through their professional affiliations. Theoretical and developmental perspectives drawn upon to inform and organize the data were Bronfenbrenner's socio-ecological model, Kegan's constructive-developmental theory, and Baumrind's typology of parenting styles. The common challenges experienced by the participants identified by a thematic analysis of the data were increased responsibilities, means of coping with increased demands, the other parent, social isolation, negative social expectations, financial constraints, and extenuating circumstances related to adolescents' learning, behavioural, or health problems. The challenges that single-parents face and their resources available to buffer the effects of these challenges can be conceptualized using Bronfenbrenner's social-ecological model. This transactional model enables the assessment of families in relation to challenges and supports from both proximal and distal environments which may affect the families' strengths, vulnerabilities, and development. The participants described a process of development through which they redefined their roles and relationships, reorganized their families' internal and external supports, and re-established a social role. Resolution of these processes led to a transformation of their identities and a more differentiated way of constructing meaning of their situation as single-parents. This transformation affected the parents' capability to mediate their families' functioning and to meet the culture's demands of parents (Kegan, 1994), for example to manage family boundaries, set limits, and facilitate development. The results have implications for how we understand single-parent families. The more positive portrait of single-parenting painted by these participants illustrated that despite challenges and risks, single-parent families are a viable family form capable of raising adolescents effectively. Prevention of such problems as adolescent alienation and risk lie in strengthening supportive family relationships and community networks to counterbalance the impact of ongoing challenges. Clinical approaches should assist single-parents to realign family roles and structures, to integrate their internal and external resources, and to develop a positive single-parent identity. Affirmation of the single-parent family as a legitimate and viable family form enables single-parents to challenge negative stereotypes that can minimize their ability to function effectively. Recommendations for further research include exploration of the adolescents' perspectives of growing up in a single-parent family, and also exploration of single-fathers' perspectives.



Single-parent families, Children of divorced parents