Family life

Single moms need support

Many community programs try to reach out to single mothers to provide them with much-needed support. Researchers assessed the impact of one such program on maternal well-being and parenting.

Nearly one in eight Canadian children lives in a family headed by a single mother. “In general, this is a high-risk, high-needs population,” says Dr. Ellen L. Lipman, a child psychiatrist at McMaster University in Ontario. Many single moms struggle financially and experience high levels of stress and depression. Their children are at greater risk of emotional and behavioural problems, academic failure and social difficulties. “Yet we know from Ministry-level data that single mothers don’t access services as much as those in two-parent families.”

Although the data do not explain the reasons for this, Dr. Lipman suspects that transportation and organization are key challenges, which is why community-based programs are so important for this population. Therefore, Dr. Lipman and her colleague, Dr. Michael H. Boyle, sought to evaluate the impact of a promising program on single mothers’ well-being and parenting practices.

Single mothers of children between the ages of three and nine were recruited through community advertisements, and 116 participated in the study. Half were randomly assigned to a 10-week program of group sessions that provided social support and education. They were given bus and taxi fare to reduce transportation barriers. The other mothers were given a standard list of community resources (with the option to participate in group sessions at the end of the study).

The study showed that in the short term, mothers who followed the program reported significant improvement in their mood and self-esteem, but no significant changes in social support or parenting practices. Over the longer term, however, there were no significant differences between the intervention and control groups. “To have longer-term effects, maybe we would need to make the program longer or add booster sessions and if we want to have an effect on other outcomes, such as parenting, maybe we need to revise the content”, explains Dr. Lipman.

Leslie McDiarmid is Project Coordinator for the Ottawa site of Better Beginnings, Better Futures, a program that offers support and services to families with young children and targets low-income families, new immigrants and single moms. She says that even the study’s findings of short-term improvement in maternal mood and self-esteem are meaningful. “This was a fairly simple intervention, and yet there were some significant effects. Now we need to take this information and say, what might give us additional outcomes, and make them last longer?

McDiarmid adds that for the project, research like this is important because service-providers are continually struggling with the issues of exposure, intensity and outcomes. “At what point can you assume that support programs and services will provide the desired outcomes? It’s very difficult to measure”, she concludes.

This article is a publication from the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.

The Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development identifies and summarizes the best scientific work on the social and emotional development of young children. It disseminates this knowledge to a variety of audiences in formats and languages adapted to their needs.

For more information on single moms, consult our experts’ articles in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.

Krakow E. Single moms need support! Bulletin of the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development 2007;6(1):4. Available here. Accessed September 2010.

Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD)

The mandate of the CEECD is to foster the dissemination of scientific knowledge on the development of young children with an emphasis, but not exclusively, on the social and emotional development and on the services and policies that influence this development.

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