Kat Seney-Williams is the Single Parent Support Coordinator for Care for the Family and has written the following to help those who have contact with single-parent families.

Many toddler groups have single parents attending, and are supporting them well.

But if you have never been a single parent yourself, you may find it difficult to know how to reach out and support those within your toddler group. However you feel, there are ways that can help us support more effectively. Here are some pointers, which you will hopefully find helpful as you seek to embrace and include single parents more widely in your local group.

Why is single parenting so different?

Single parents have additional challenges to those who are parenting within a relationship. Single parents are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. All decisions, great or small, fall solely on their shoulders. They may not have anyone at home telling them they are doing a good job. They may also have to deal with co-parenting issues where they have contact, no contact or erratic contact with their ex. They may be struggling with financial pressures and physical exhaustion, as they juggle everything on their own.

Learn what you can

There can be a stigma attached to single parenting, and misinformation can cause us to have biases we aren’t even aware of. It can be really helpful to take the time to read useful information on the subject. Why not take a look at our useful guide to starting a single parent support group.

Know their ‘entry point’

It is helpful to know the ‘entry point’ of your single parents – that is, how they entered into their single-parent journey. This can be vital information because, for example, the way in which you would reach out to someone who has entered their journey through bereavement will be different to reaching out to someone who has fled domestic abuse.

Know where they are on the journey

Each single parent is unique and each will be at a different stage of their journey. The above diagram helps us to understand this journey better. However do remember that the journey isn’t as linear as the diagram may suggest, as parents often revisit stages. Some days they may feel like they are taking one step forward and two steps back. The pace at which each parent moves will vary so do try not to push them through stages quicker than they feel comfortable with.

the single parent journey
Understand their struggles

It is helpful to get to know your single parents so that you know how to support them best. Try to do this in a relaxed manner, rather than bombarding them with questions. Single parents often just want someone to listen to them or bounce ideas off, as they may not have anyone at home that they can do this with.

Be sensitive

One toddler group leader, who is also a single parent, has some really helpful comments:

The welcome is important because single parents are already aware that they will be mixing with married/coupled parents. Very few single parents disclose their status right away, as I have found they attempt to fit in. The toddler group team should take care to not only make them feel welcome but to help them settle in and maybe introduce them to a few parents. Also ensuring that any emerging cliques are carefully managed is important, as I would usually find this was one of the main complaints from single parents within my toddler group.

Another wonderful touch is being on hand to help them with their child/children during the playgroup session, not in a heavy-handed way but just offering that extra pair of hands. This was always well received by single parents in my group, as typically they are the only one nurturing and they found this help so invaluable.

Particular days of the year may be difficult for your single parents, such as birthdays, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s/Father’s Day and anniversaries of the death of a partner. A little extra support during these times would be really appreciated. Take the time to find out such information (sensitively) and think about what you can do to show the group cares for them – perhaps simply through saying a few kind words, or giving a card or some flowers from the group.

Get them involved

Another group leader writes, “I have found that, as time passes, a good 60% of my single parent members came on board to help within the toddler group. They enjoyed becoming part of the team in whatever capacity they could give of their time and efforts.”

Continued support could come in the guise of events or activities, church or otherwise, outside of the toddler group that single parents can be invited to and encouraged to attend, as this helps combat issues of isolation.

Know when to suggest outside help

Don’t feel as group leader that you have to have all the answers – or be there for them 24/7. You are not a counsellor, nor can you help/fix everything. In light of this, it is handy to have helpful organisations on hand that you can signpost your single parents to if they are in need. There’s a list of helpful organisations on the Care for the Family website. Having helpful literature on subjects such as benefits, child tax credit, working tax credit, foodbanks or getting back into work can be very useful too. These can be found online or by calling or visiting local services and requesting leaflets.

Dos and don’ts
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how I’m coping
  • Do listen to me talk – I might talk a lot but please be patient with me
  • Don’t say we should meet up but then never contact me
  • Do keep your word
  • Do encourage me by telling me I’m doing a good job when you see something positive
  • Don’t assume I’m divorced or separated when I could be grieving the loss of my spouse
  • Do offer practical support, for example: lifts to toddler group, school runs, household chores when I’m feeling ill or struggling to juggle things
  • Don’t tell others when I share personal information, unless I give you permission to do so
  • Do remind me to look after myself and take time out when possible
  • Don’t avoid me
  • Do encourage me not to hide away
  • Don’t be condescending with me
  • Do choose day trips or socials that are low cost, as I may not be able to afford anything else
  • Do remember my birthday and get me a card. I may not have anyone else that will do that for me
  • Do think of me if you’re having a clear out
  • Do include me when inviting friends round for lunch or on an outing
  • Do be mindful that I may be alone during the holidays
  • Ongoing support

Remember, supporting single parents is an ongoing endeavour. You will not be able to provide a quick fix so you and your team must be prepared to be there for them over a number of years. Sharing out the load with others means it will be a joy rather than a burden – and provides your single parents with extra friends too!

Kat’s book, Surviving and Thriving on the Single-Parent Journey, is available from the Care for the Family shop.

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