John is now a 20-year-old college sophomore, but when his father left the home, John was trapped into becoming the 8-year-old “man of the family.” His siblings and his mom, Sarah, depended on John to play his father’s role. John enjoyed going off to college but also felt guilty for not being at home to help his family. What should he do? And what could Sarah have done to prevent this problem?

Many children from single-parent families find themselves in John’s situation. When a spouse leaves, the oldest child often fills in the missing role. The family does not make a conscious choice in the matter, but child/parents emerge nonetheless. Still, a child needs to be treated as a child, especially in single-parent homes where kids are often hurting and needy. As John learned, making a child into a miniature adult can cause tremendous insecurity, anxiety and depression.

John needs to know that his feelings are normal; he should enjoy his new freedom, not feel guilty for it. John also must realize that he is responsible to his family as a son and brother but not responsible for their well-being. That’s Sarah’s job.

How can single parents keep their children from assuming adult roles? Parental breakups trigger certain emotions in children, and the effects ripple through families for at least two years. (Most children’s emotions stabilize three to five years after the split.) Smart parents guide their kids through these changes. Decide if your children have expressed some of these common feelings, and consider how well you have responded to them:

  • Shock. After a breakup, children initially feel anxious, fearful and abandoned because their future seems uncertain. During this phase, parents need to show affection and discuss their plans with their children. Statements like, “We will get through this” are more helpful than, “What are we going to do?” Moreover, because adults often share their children’s fears, parents must draw their support from a person or group other than their kids.
  • Depression. Children may cry or withdraw in this stage. If kids feel that they have to comfort a parent, they will stuff their true feelings, and healing will not take place. As a result, parents should encourage their kids to use any means—tears, speech or drawing—to vent their depression.
  • Anger. Like depression, anger demands expression. If it’s repressed, children can become anxious, rebellious and self-destructive. When children’s rage surfaces, parents should assure their kids that such emotions are normal and accepted. Consequently, it’s not helpful to tell your children, “Don’t be angry.” They are angry. Instead, encourage them to share their feelings openly, but not aggressively (no tantrums allowed).
  • Fear of rejection. Recently, a friend tried to comfort a dog that had been hit by a car; she received a dog bite for her trouble. The dog wasn’t mean but was reacting to the pain and fear it felt. Sometimes children who fear rejection act that way. I advised one of my clients to continue telling her 9-year-old son how much she cared for him even though he repeatedly hissed, “I hate you.” The mother’s loving words eventually broke through her son’s pain, and he fell into her arms. When you keep loving your kids, despite their hurtful actions, your children will realize that you won’t reject them, a key step in the healing process.

Besides helping your child deal with his emotions, the following tips will help you avoid Sarah’s mistake: Set aside time for your child to express his feelings. Reassure him that his feelings are normal. Recognize your child’s hurt, even if he withdraws or lashes out. Do not take his actions personally; he needs your support now more than ever. Try to maintain as stable a home environment as possible; the less change, the better. Do not expect perfect parenting from yourself; do the best you can with God’s help.

These steps will help your child re-establish trust with you and a sense of well-being for himself. It will take time, so be patient. Eventually emotional healing will come.