Divorced Mothers

Divorced Mothers


Much has been written about divorced mothers and their relationships with their children. Mothers, according to many authors, receive primary parenting responsibilities and physical custody of the children far more often than fathers. As a result, much of the research has focused upon mothers and their parenting, adjustment, and lifestyle changes. Sometimes it is easy to see the problems divorced mothers experience as based solely on them, their coping, and their responses. Keep in mind when you read this and other resources on mothers and divorce that this is a stressful time for everyone.


Tein, Sandler, and Zautra, in the March 2000 Journal of Family Psychology, note that past studies have discussed “diminished parenting” to describe the parenting style seen in divorced mothers. While there are fewer studies on fathers who are primary parents, the same results appear to hold true for them. Divorced parents are less likely to provide consistent rules and supervision. For example, they set harsh consequences in some instances but ignore problematic behavior in others. Sometimes this varies upon their level of energy and frustration. The inconsistency teaches children that they should first try “getting away with something” because they are likely to get away with it at least some of the time. It’s the same principle as slot machines. You don’t win the majority of the time, but sometimes you do and the pay off is great!

Divorced parents are also prone to use more coercive and controlling behaviors. For example, they give orders and expect them to be obeyed, but fail to follow-up to make sure the child can do them and does. They may have less patience for normal resistance, may be expecting more from their children around the home, and may simply have less energy to patiently explain things or tolerate acting out. Major stressors in general have been shown to impair mothering by resulting in more controlling, abusive, and punitive parenting behaviors, and less nurturing, spontaneous, and patient parenting behaviors.

Tein, Sandler, and Zautra studied 178 mothers with children between 8 and 12. They saw them once and then again 5 months later. They found that:

  • Major as well as daily stressors had an effect on mothers’ coping, but daily stressors were three times more stressful. Balancing demands of job, home, and parenting, as well as the unexpected crises that come up, is more taxing than the once-in-a-while emergencies
  • Mothers’ rejection and consistency of discipline was not significantly related to major or minor stressors; the main effects of stressors may really lie in the decreased positive attention and emotionally rewarding interactions between parent and child. When the parent is stressed, they may not have time or emotional energy to provide the kinds of reassurances and soothing the children needed or are used to. The children become stressed, act out under the pressure of confusing emotions, resentment, and grief, and make matters more stressful in the home
  • Parents who could maintain consistent discipline styles also showed more active and less avoidant coping strategies. Such parents are better able to organize their resources, recognize potentially serious child problems, and respond quickly to resolve or mitigate them. The post divorce period is definitely the time to focus on your own adjustment and emotional strength. Going to the gym may take an hour away from your family, but if it helps you work out frustrations, feel stronger and more energetic, and maintain the patience you need, it may well be worth it for everyone for you to go
  • Social support seeking did not appear to be a significant factor; this may be because support seeking is different from having adequate support. It is possible that those who felt supported did not seek out new support, but those who felt little family and social support found themselves suddenly needing it. As a result, during the post-divorce period, it is probably a good idea to build up social supports, maintain friendships when you can, and ensure some “adult conversation” in your life in person or by phone to make sure you don’t become isolated and alone

Divorced mothers are often embroiled in continued conflict with their ex-husbands over child support, visitation, and unresolved marital issues. Cummings and Davies note that during high conflict times, parents may become less affectionate as well as emotionally rejecting toward their children in one of two ways:

  • They may become more intrusive in their children’s lives and more negative in their evaluations of the children. This tends to result in aggression and acting out in the children
  • They may become more depressed and withdraw from the children. This tends to result in decreased energy and interest in the environment, and dejection and withdrawal in the children


Many authors believe the deficits in mothers’ parenting after a divorce is due to their increased depression, anxiety, and stress. Peterson, Emery, and Hetherington in their studies found that many women were more depressed, anxious, angry, and self-doubting after the divorce. However, for many women, these emotional difficulties had improved considerably by the second year after the divorce.

Parental and child adjustment are highly intercorrelated. Amato reviewed studies indicating that when mothers are more distressed, their children become more distressed and tend to have more problems in their relationship with their mothers. Whiteside and Becker found maternal depression was positively associated with behavior problems. When mothers are withdrawn and depressed, children show behavior problems, but when the mother is able to remain warm and emotionally supportive, the children cope better as well. Similar findings are likely for fathers, but data on father-parenting style is limited.

Amato goes on to say that likewise, when children are more distressed and present more behavioral problems, the mother is likely to experience more distress, doubt about the divorce and the family’s well-being, and even anger at the ex-husband for appearing to provoke some of the tension and conflict.

However, research is very clear about one thing. Denigrating the children’s father is one of the biggest mistakes a mother or relative can make. It causes loyalty conflicts, resentment, heightened fears of loss, and fears of rejection as well. Children love their fathers as much as their mothers, and seeing one parent verbally attack the other leads to pressures to choose sides. This is a no-win situation, and many children become angry at the parents for putting them in this situation. For other children, it is easy to see how one parent’s faults led them to be expelled from the family. Children, in seeing that they are like that parent, can quickly assume they could be expelled from the home as well. The comment, “You are just like your father!” is one of the worst things you can say when angry.

Lifestyle Changes

When custody questions are raised, some wonder if boys are better off with their fathers, and girls better off with their mothers. Research would support this to some extent, but often the better financial status of the father or step-father confounds this. Clearly, however, research has shown that a family’s higher socio-economic status can prevent or compensate for some of the disruptions that divorce presents.

Some divorces are followed by remarriages. The research is unclear on whether this improves child adjustment. Some studies have shown that when placed with the opposite sex parent (e.g., boys with their mothers and girls with their fathers), children appear to benefit from a new step-parent of the same sex. Other studies refute this, indicating children of the opposite sex are most benefitted (e.g., girls benefit from a step-father and boys from a step-mother). Likely, the child’s age, the quality of the parent and step-parent relationship, as well as other factors, combine and contribute. Step-families are discussed later in some detail, however.

Sometimes these remarriages are followed by repeated divorces. Research is unclear on whether this increases children’s adjustment problems. Some research indicates that the multiple moves, multiple losses, and multiple threats to the child’s relationship with the non-custodial parent add up and lead to more problems, but not all research support this. In some families, the children may keep their distance from the new partner, and so losing that person does not upset them too much.

So What’s a Mom To Do?

Kelly Williams’ Single Mamahood gives great advice and tips for being a single parent. She offers cases from her own life as well as the lives of friends and colleagues to illustrate her points. Among her tips are:

  • Keep Your Anger Under Wraps. Don’t argue with the father in front of the children or on the phone with the children nearby; count to ten or write it down for later if you have to.
  • Don’t badmouth the children’s father in front of them or in front of others who would repeat it to them.
  • Invite the father to the children’s important events and activities Don’t Forget the Kids 1) Assure them you won’t try to replace the children’s father with a dating partner; introduce them to any serious dating partners and give them time to get used to them before the date spends and significant time with the family. Be sure to discuss your children with the dating partner, as well as their attitudes toward your children, before they spend any significant time together.
  • Let your kids keep pictures and mementoes from their relationship with their father; don’t make them choose between you and their dad.
  • Assure them that the divorce and any visitation problems afterwards are not their fault, but problems for adults to deal with.
  • Don’t be afraid to get counseling for you or them if needed.
  • Make sure sons especially get exposure to male role models through sports, male relatives, or even other kids’ dads Be A Good Single Mama 1) Don’t be ashamed of being a single mother; realize you are a strong person, and a powerful figure in your child’s life; you can still guide them and set them on the right path.
  • Build a support network with other single parents and ask for favors, bounce ideas off them, do favors for them, and share resources.
  • Remember you don’t need a man to get along.
  • Watch your money, budget your time, and be proactive in your life.
  • Stay in touch and on friendly terms with other adults in your children’s lives, like school teachers and nurses, and the staff at your doctor’s or dentist’s office.
  • And for daughters, talk to them about the things you wished your mother had talked to you about, love them, be honest and admit mistakes when they happen, and set the example for them so they know they can be strong women too.


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