Tips for Counselling Single Parent Families

The following excerpt comes from our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The chapter, “Single-Parent Families,” explores common challenges and celebrates the strengths of the single-parent family. The power of attachment-based parenting coupled with the unique strengths of each family provide the foundation for the practical skills outlined in this chapter.

At its very core, parenting is about a relationship with another human being. That relationship typically begins when the infant enters the world, changing and growing through many different stages. Each of these stages comes with incredible rewards and challenges. For those who have another caregiver to share the journey with, the challenges are divided, the load lightened. For single parents, the load is often carried alone or requires the added task of searching for help from family, social supports, community resources, or others. This can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task.

When people feel they have a secure base, they have higher self-esteem and are more resilient, more confident, more tolerant of others, and better able to regulate their emotions.

This chapter will focus on how you can help single parents identify the day-to-day challenges and attachment patterns in their parenting. This includes exploring what might inhibit parent–child relationships and helping parents recognize the positive and negative cycles in their current relationships. Often this also includes supporting the co-parenting relationship after separation or divorce and addressing grief and loss related to this transition.

Since the 1970s, the number of single parents in Canada has more than doubled. According to Statistics Canada, the number of single-parent homes in the mid-1970s was in the range of 290,000, whereas it rose to nearly 700,000 by 2011, with women making up 80 percent of these numbers (2012). According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, just over 30 percent of that country’s 80 million children reside in single-parent homes.

Nearly 70 percent of those who are parenting alone are doing so as a result of divorce or separation. Another 14 percent of single parents are raising a child alone due to the loss of a significant other through death, and close to 10 percent of single parents have never married, purposefully choosing to raise children on their own (Atwood & Genovese, 2006; see also Chapter 9 on Purposeful Single Parenting). Whatever the reason, single parenting can be tough, bringing with it many unique challenges that can cause stress for the solo parent. In my work with single parents, I began to notice a common pattern of guilt and frustration and a feeling that they just weren’t doing enough, that they couldn’t ever seem to do enough. I began my search for a program that would help change this negative cycle.

I’ll never forget my first introduction to attachment parenting – it was the first day of a five-day intensive certification, and across the screen a giant letter G appeared. It represented “G-rated” parenting, which stands for good enough parenting, the premise of an attachment-based program called Circle of Security Parenting (COS-P) (Powell et al., 2014). Within this program the G rating notes that if a parent aims to meet their children’s emotional needs 30 percent of the time, their children will still become secure, thoughtful, and kind people (Powell et al., 2014).

In a world where parents are often pressured to be “P-rated,” or perfect – whether through self-defined pressures or those related to social media or family – this G-rated approach is not only refreshing, it is backed by over 50 years of research. The program is built upon the work of John Bowlby, a psychologist and psychiatrist who pioneered research on parent–child relationships (1988), and American-Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiment (Ainsworth et al., 1978). The results of her research laid the groundwork for helping parents identify how to support their child, welcome them into the home, and ultimately become both a safe haven and a secure base for their child.

Similar to Sue Johnson’s (2019) Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), COS-P is based on helping clients reduce strain by identifying negative cycles that create conflict and stress. Once these cycles are identified, clients are encouraged to create new connections and patterns of accessibility, which help them develop new patterns of attachment. Similar to EFT, COS-P helps clients identify triggers or wounds by recognizing negative thoughts or voices from their own caregivers using the metaphor of “shark music.” This term refers to background noise that comes from hearing criticism from someone in the past in one’s head (or memory) while dealing with an emotional moment with a child. This can cause ruptures in the attachment bond. For example, during bedtime, mealtimes, and play, this shark music can influence how a parent does or does not respond to a situation. By identifying this background noise and learning new ways of responding it, clients are able to establish a new way of being with their child.

The skills learned through attachment-based counselling are not only applicable to parent–child relationships; they have proven to be valuable in relationships with peers, family members, and significant others as well. When people feel they have a secure base, they have higher self-esteem and are more resilient, more confident, more tolerant of others, and better able to regulate their emotions.

Read the full chapter in our book, Counselling in Relationships: Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available on our website.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Vicki Enns

MMFT, RMFT – Clinical Director

Vicki is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships – Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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