“Pastor, what do I do when my child …?” (Solutions to ten challenging single-parent discipline situations)





When one is parenting alone, there is no one to help late at night or on a day-to-day basis when discipline situations arise. It can get overwhelming, to say the least.

As church leaders, you can be of great assistance to single parents when you understand the many issues involved in parenting alone. Following are some typical questions single parents have asked me regarding discipline situations. You can use this article to help educate yourself so when a single parent comes to you, there will be ready answers in your toolbox. Or you can refer the single parent to this blog.

Many times, people will want to give single parents trite answers, just tell them to love their children like Jesus does, or have them encourage their children to be more Christlike. While parents need to model Christ’s love and teach their children to do the same, in the moment of crisis or at a time when single parents are under tremendous stress, they need quick and easy responses to a child’s unproductive or disobedient behavior.

  1.  What do I do when my toddler screams at me and I can’t get him to pick up his toys?

Many times, a toddler may be reacting to the tone of voice or the look on the parent’s face. Brain research shows that stress causes people to talk louder. Parents may also project an angry face when under undue stress. Mad faces and loud voices can scare toddlers. They respond to singing and playing through a situation. Parents can calm themselves and then sing a song using a peppy, happy voice. They can make up words and use a familiar tune like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Brain research also shows that when toddlers and young preschoolers get scared, a lot of the time they turn their fear into something funny. That’s why in some cases the more upset a parent becomes, the more a toddler runs away laughing and giggling. That tends to upset the parent more, and then the toddler laughs more. It becomes a vicious circle.

Parents need to stop and take a deep breath, calm down, and start over, whether trying to get a little head into a shirt or the child into bed. They should play the toddler through the situation.

  1.  How do I handle it when my son’s third-grade teacher calls me to tell me he hasn’t turned in his homework for a week? And it was the week he was at his dad’s.

A single parent’s natural response may be to tell the teacher about how the child’s father is making life difficult, not cooperating, etc. But this isn’t wise. Instead, encourage the parent to listen to the teacher. Otherwise, the parent may miss an opportunity to learn about how the child is doing in school and how she can help him.

After the conversation, the parent can approach her son and ask him what he thinks he can do to get his homework in on time—even when he is at his dad’s. I would not encourage the parent to confront the dad, because she can’t control what goes on at the other parent’s home, and also because a third-grader needs to take responsibility for his actions. The parent should give the son some choices on what he thinks a consequence should be next time, and then follow through if it happens again.

  1.  My 14-year-old girl wants to date and I told her, “No, not until you are 16,” but her dad said, “Sure, you can date when you’re at my house.” How do I handle that?

Like we’ve said before, one can’t control what goes on at the other home. A parent can set boundaries and rules for his or her own home. But in addition to setting boundaries, it’s important to explain why a parent has established those particular boundaries. Short and thoughtful explanations when everyone is calm will help. Then the child will be better equipped to evaluate situations while away from the parent and to keep from overstepping boundaries. Because the parent wants to keep the child safe and cares for the child’s welfare, explaining the boundaries will help the child better understand why they are in place.

The single parent should remind the teen of her reasons for not allowing dating until a certain age, then tell her daughter she trusts her to make wise decisions, but in their home there will be no dating until the age she is granted permission.

  1.  My 4-year-old wants to know where her mommy is, and I don’t know what to say.

Most preschoolers live in the moment. It’s important to simply give the child an answer for that moment in time. “Mommy is at work” or “Mommy is at her house.” Many times, the single parent thinks the child is inquiring about why the other parent isn’t there when really all the child is wondering about is where mommy is.

  1.  Eating dinner at my house is a nightmare with my 4-year-old. He won’t stay at the table with the older two kids and me to eat.

A lot of the time, the single parent will cave in to inappropriate behaviors. Then all of a sudden they will realize one or more of their children are out of control. Encourage the single parent to have a sit-down meeting before the dinner, when everyone is calm. Have the parent explain that everyone in the family will be eating at the table, explaining also that when anyone leaves the table, it means that person is through eating for the night.

Encourage the single parent to get the 4-year-old to help by setting the table or doing another helpful activity. This helps the child buy into the overall family dynamics. Tell the parent that when the child leaves the table, to take that as the cue that the child is finished eating. The parent can then take the child’s plate, dump the food, and put the plate in the dishwasher. The child is done eating for the night.

If the child screams or gets upset, the parent should remain calm and simply explain in a reassuring voice that the child will have an opportunity to eat in the morning at breakfast. Changing the subject or getting the child involved in an activity such as a warm, relaxing bath with some fun toys will go a long way in changing the child’s behavior.

  1.  My kid is a whirlwind kid. He won’t sit still at school, runs at day care, fidgets during church. Help!

This might be a child who is using frenzied activity to keep his mind occupied if there is something bothering him, like a recent divorce. The parent can try engaging this child in active physical activity such as running, shooting hoops, jumping rope, etc. The parent should explain to the child that he is trying to keep the child’s mind occupied and wants to help him.

The parent can show him how to journal or draw pictures to keep his mind busy. At church, encourage the parent to have backup markers, paper, and pencils! And to have a lot of bubble gum to chew. This will give the child something to do with his mouth.

  1.  My child screams at me all the time and tells me she wants to go live with her dad, but her dad is the one who left. He doesn’t want her living with him.

Many times, kids are worried about the parent they live with abandoning them like they think the other parent did. They will test the limits to make sure that parent isn’t going to leave them too. Tell the parent to explain in a calm moment that no matter what, the parent is there to stay and is not going to leave the child. The single parent might also explain that the judge decided that for now the child needs to live with that parent.

A good tip for the single parent is to develop a code of some sort (like pulling on her own ear) and explaining that when the child’s voice starts getting loud, her body is saying she needs to be reassured that she is safe with the parent, who will use the “code” when necessary as a reminder.

  1.  My 15-year-old is sneaking out of the house to see her boyfriend, whom I have forbidden her to see. She won’t listen to me, and now she is skipping school.

There are more issues here than sneaking out of the house and skipping school. More than likely, the single parent hasn’t had time to develop consistent boundaries and hasn’t been able to become the primary authority in the home. First of all, encourage this single parent to get the child to a counselor. With the help of a counselor and other trusted individuals who are well versed in teens and single parenting issues, the parent can talk through these issues, vent, and consider making changes to his or her parenting style.

Encourage the single parent to write out the boundaries he or she wants for the home. The single parent might also ask the child what she thinks her consequence should be for each boundary. The parent can then pray and think about what to say to the child about the issues. Have the parent write out an agreement with the boundaries and consequences. The parent will then have the teen sign the agreement. If the teen oversteps a boundary in the future, the parent should refer to the agreement and enforce the consequences.

  1.  My three kids fight all the time. How do I bring peace into this house?

Many times, the kids in single-parent homes are acting out because they don’t feel safe. They may also feel that no one is in charge. A great tip for single parents is to use the Safekeeper* concept. The parent tells the children that he or she is there to help keep the children safe. Fighting is not safe. When the children start, the single parent shouldn’t ask, “Who started it?” “Why did you hit your brother?” “What are you fighting about now?” Instead, the parent should say, “Remember, I’m the safekeeper in this home, and fighting is not safe. What could you do that would be safe?” Or “Fighting is not helpful. What could you do that would be helpful?”

The single parent might also need to get three journaling books and if the kids continue to fight, the parent should separate the kids into different rooms and have them write out their side of the story. This time alone will calm the kids down and give the single parent a moment of peace. The parent doesn’t even have to address the fight after the journaling episode unless he or she just wants to. Tell the single parent to remember, though, don’t ask the “who, why, or what” questions.

  1.  I have one child who tattles all the time on his brother. It is driving me crazy. How can I get the tattling to stop?

Here is a terrific tip for children who are into tattling. Encourage the parent to say, “Are you telling me this to be helpful or hurtful?” If he says, “Helpful,” the parent says, “How is telling me this helpful?” If he says, “Hurtful,” the parent can say, “In our house we don’t hurt people. What could you do that would be helpful?”


Sometimes single parents need a more in-depth answer depending on variations such as age, developmental abilities, or other situations. For our purposes here, the answers above are short and to the point.

All of these answers come from my personal experience of parenting alone and also mentoring and coaching single parents to be successful in their journey of parenting alone. There will be a lot of variables for each problem, and many require longer, more detailed answers. These are merely suggestions, and each single parent will need to determine what is best for his or her own situation. With encouragement from church leaders, continual prayer, guidance from the Holy Spirit, and reading the Bible, single parents can find their way in successfully parenting solo.

One more tip for church leaders: One way you can assist the person parenting alone might be to provide short devotions the parent can do with the children when the children are in the home. Encourage single parents to pray with their children, help the children memorize short verses, and read their Bibles with the children when they have access to them. Keep in mind that with the way the courts are awarding shared parenting, a single parent may have his or her child only every other week, and that in itself makes it difficult to discipline the children and teach them biblical truths.  

*Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline.


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