by Dr Bernice Sorensen
An only-child’s experience of growing up without siblings may mean that they are unprepared for many of the emotional and social demands of formal education. Even as young adults, an only-child can find the tension between their need for separateness and togetherness difficult to negotiate. Counsellors can offer a great deal to these young people when sensitive to some of the challenges they face. A recent article in the TES (1) reported that most teachers did not think only-children had special problems. However, a new project was set up to train ‘listeners’, in the Durham area found that 50% of the first referrals were only-children.
My own experience of only-children is three-fold. First as an only-child, I am well aware of the challenges I met interacting with others and negotiating both friendships and intimate relationships as a child, adolescent and adult. Secondly, as a result of my doctoral research, I have uncovered some of the long term effects experienced by adult onlies growing up an only-child in a predominantly sibling society. Finally, I am familiar with the issues that only-children bring through my professional life as a counsellor and co-ordinator for young people’s counselling and previously as a school and college teacher/tutor
In this article I focus on some of the only-child issues revealed in my research and illustrate why I consider it is important for therapists to be aware of the implications of growing up without siblings. I have chosen to illustrate these themes through two ‘typical’ case studies based on my counselling experience.
Nico presented for school counselling, aged 13, because of his difficulties with making friends. He appeared shy but also much older than his years; a middle aged man in a boy’s body. As he spoke, I warmed to him. He was both insightful and entertaining and somewhat self-deprecatory. My over all impression was of an articulate man rather than a boy.
Nico’s difficulties appeared to stem from the fact that he had spent most of his young life in adult company and had little idea of how to play or be childlike. In fact he found other children silly and immature. He was much happier getting on with his school work than messing around either in class or playing outside. He was aware other children thought he was a swot. Nico appeared to be able to handle the teasing but could find no one with whom to have a close relationship. He was particularly concerned that his mother thought he ought to go out and see friends more, although he found this difficult and whenever she spoke about it, he felt uncomfortable. He would rather spend time with friends of his parents’ than play with other children.
In many ways he was quite fastidious; always working within the structure he created for himself. Getting up at 7.00 in the morning he showered, fed his animals, made his bed and tidied his room, before going to get the school bus at 8.15. He mostly sat alone on the bus reading a book because the other children were ‘so rowdy’. He returned home from school at 4.30, did his homework, fed his pets, and played on the computer until 7.0 when he had supper downstairs and talked with his parents about his and their day. He felt very much included in his parent’s relationship, treated as an equal, asked his opinion and always felt his views were taken into consideration. His peer experience was opposite. They rarely listened to him, usually ignored what he said, and made fun of his conciliatory way and implied he did not know how to enjoy himself. Nico just saw them as childish and immature.
Initially I felt at a bit of a loss of how to work with Nico. I had met other only-children like him and knew how difficult it was for them to be childlike when all their interactions had primarily been with adults. I was also aware that Nico had become very much the observer. Participating in games and activities was difficult for him, as he could see little point. He appeared very self-sufficient but also apart. He was perfectly capable of entertaining himself but longed for like minded peers. After several months we began to explore how he might share his interest in computer games with some of the other boys he knew liked to play. Although initially he found it quite hard to share his own games, not having experienced this aspect of social interaction, he soon became comfortable and by the end of the year had started up a computer club.
Lexi presented for counselling at a young people’s agency aged 14. My first impression was of a mature, carefully dressed young woman, who appeared both confident and articulate. Her concerns focused on her relationships with children in her class. She had been bullied at different times in her schooling, and could not really understand why. As she talked I became aware of how important her friends were to her, despite the fact they continually let her down. They often choose to cancel arrangements choosing to see other, more local friends. When I asked Lexi how she coped with this, she said, she either withdrew pretending it did not matter or tried to give them something to get them back on her side. Which ever she tried appeared not to work and she felt let down and hurt.
Whist talking she alluded to the fact her peers said unkind things about her, but she was very reticent to tell me what they were. Eventually she admitted that her friends said she was ‘different’ (she thought because she lived on the other side of town); ‘spoilt’ because she was an only-child and therefore must get given everything she wanted; and finally that ‘she thought too much of herself’ which I suspected referred to her confident articulate manner. When I asked her how she dealt with these remarks she told me she had told her friends that she was happy to come across town to see them; that she wanted to share her ‘things’; and that she was prepared to accommodate there wishes as long as they included her. My sense was she was trying too hard, confirmed by the effort both her and her mother put into having a friend to visit, preparing exciting things to do and places to visit.
At this point I also became aware of the important role her mother played in these friendships, which Lexi admitted she found intrusive at times, particularly when her mother kept coming to see if ‘everything was ok?’; could she get them anything?’; would they like to stay the night?’ etc. Lexi did not want friends to stay as it meant sharing her room and she also hated being away from home. I could palpably feel the mother’s anxiety, and remembered she had made the initial contact with the agency and had had to be persuaded to let Lexi speak for herself.
In the next few months Lexi and I worked together to see if she could find other ways of relating to her friends which lay between total withdrawal and placating. During this time I became more aware of the enmeshed relationship she had with her mother and Lexi’s own anxiety. This expressed itself in her need to have everything under control, (which she clearly could not with her friends); her need to lock herself into routines (which in fact interfered with her meeting friends or ‘staying over’), and her need for perfectionism in her school work (which was self-imposed and led her mother to be more anxious that she would ‘over do it’).
Discussion: An only-child archetype
These two case-studies highlight some of the issues arising in my research which led me to suggest there is an only-child archetype. An archetype is an unlearned tendency to experience things in a certain way and has no form of its own, but acts as an organizing principle for the things we see or do.
My use of the word archetype is not without some reservations and I use it here to signify an identifiable set of characteristics that are likely to be specific to the lived experiences of only-children. Elements which are common to the only-children I interviewed are revealed in their stories and can be read on my website www.only-child.org.uk. These stories have been responded to by other onlies who have resonated with the themes. Although some of these stories are not unique to only-children, a combination of these experiences appears common to the only-child. Furthermore, there are a number of re-occurring issues that only-children bring to therapy about their sense of self and their difficulties in relating to others. What makes these uniquely only-child is when they are connected to a lack of siblings. This is why first-born children may have many only-child attributes. The content of this only-child archetype is briefly contained in the following headings:
• A lack of a sense of connectedness often experienced as aloneness;
• A need for personal space, both physical and emotional;
• Conflict between dependence versus independence;
• Issues around specialness and responsibility;
• Feelings of having to be everything to parents, experiencing self only through parent’s eyes;
• A lack of opportunities for social and emotional development provided by siblings;
• Triangular relationships with parents and the potential for enmeshment and emotional incest;
• Issues concerning psychological separation and individuation;
• The negative effects of the only-child stereotype;
• The experience of shame.
Nico and Lexi’s case studies illustrate some of the themes that make up the only-child archetype:
• Both lacked opportunities for social and emotional development with other children, as neither had enough early opportunities to learn to interact successfully. At this point in their lives, Lexi tended to try too hard, whilst Nico rarely attempted to interact in a childlike fashion believing it held no value.
• Physical and emotional space was very important to them both which they handled through their routines. They both wanted close relationships but were already experiencing the tension between wanting time on their own and time with others.
• They both had issues around specialness. Whilst being special can be very nurturing, only-children also experience it as claustrophobic and a burden, particularly to their development as an autonomous individual. Being special sets up unrealistic expectations which are carried into subsequent relationships.
• They both had parents who had a tendency to become over anxious and over involved in their child’s life. Although this was less true for Nico, he was very aware that he did not want to upset his parents and felt responsible for achieving what he felt they expected of him, placing his own needs second.
• Both presented as responsible ‘little adults’ with some elements of perfectionism. Nico in many ways epitomised the ‘little adult’, so beloved in parenting books (2) on bringing up an only-child that rarely recognises how detrimental this can as it leads to the ‘excluded child’ of Transactional analysis.
• Lexi had experienced comparisons with the negative only-child stereotype, particularly around issues of being spoilt.
By using the idea of an archetype I am not suggesting that all only-children will have difficulties. I prefer to look at the particular challenges an only-child may face, as a result of growing up without sibling interaction. Sibling interaction offers three important opportunities: to learn to share; deal with conflict; and be intimate, all of which are fundamental to relating to others. Although the only-child may experience challenges in relating this does not mean that they find relationships difficult. Rather it is negotiating the interface between the needs of the individuals within these relationships. As a young person’s counsellor I noticed that many only-children found it extremely difficult to deal with conflict, were often prone to bullying, and tended to be placatory in their interactions. This was confirmed in my research. Missing out on valuable sibling interaction left many only-children feeling vulnerable as they did not have the know-how to deal with conflicts that inevitably occur. Some attempted to ensure conflicts never arose, whilst others withdrew at the first sign of difficulties.
The most popular theme on the only-child internet message board ‘Beinganonly’ (3) is around friendships. Specifically the need for attention from a friend, which is never quite the same as the attention one receives from a parent, and can lead the only-child feeling they have done something wrong. This is one website posting around the theme of friendships that illustrates how an adult only-child views their childhood experience of friendships.
‘The ‘why did they leave me?’ ‘why don’t they like me?’ theme that I’ve read in the previous postings seems to be a residue from the total attention only children get from their parents. The world revolves around us! We expect similar treatment and attention from friends. Therefore confusion/ feelings of inadequacy when it clearly doesn’t…..causes us to withdraw.
Another example of the reasons why an only-child can find friendships difficult is connected to their experience of being ‘special’ in the eyes of their family. The term ‘little emperor’ used in China, encapsulates this perception of the only-child. They have the sole responsibility of carrying the family name, and as a result, have been given too much power. In the US where the numbers of only-children are rapidly increasing, a male posting stated:
We have a crazy need to be special
as we were to our parents
it leads to not saying things in large groups
it leads to severe relationship intensity/ expectations
it leads to choosing
only friends to whom we will be
therefore there is a greater potential
for hurt if the friendship doesn’t last
if it turns out we’re not special to that person –
Then we withdraw.
When there are no siblings, learning to get on with someone you may not always feel very positive towards, is lost. A lack of sibling interaction means that playing with other children can seem a real challenge. I remember as a child playing board games with school friends and being surprised at the ‘childish way’ I thought they played. This was a common theme in my interviews:
being so close to adults,
many children’s games
seem, well, childish!
It is not unusual for adults to let the only-child win which sets up an unrealistic view of competition. The only-child often has a fear around competing, a result of never having had to compete for parental attention. Similarly the one comparison an only-child has of itself is to an adult rather than another child. This can lead to a need to do everything right, be in control and try to succeed all of the time. Continual interaction with adults can also lead the only-child to feel over-sensitive to peers. Many of my co-researchers experienced this sensitivity as crippling and prevented them trusting other children. This later impacted on intimate relationships, leading them to prefer the safe environment of home.
I think as an only child
your domestic setting is very
very important to you –
it’s important to me
it’s the place where you feel
that you are who you are
rather than when you go
out into the world
you have to adapt
hide and pretend
put on a face
pretend not to be quite as weird
pretend to be more sociable
pretend not to be vulnerable.
The discrepancy between an only-child’s sense of who they are and how they are perceived is clearly documented (4)(5). I have argued (6) that this is often a result of parental enmeshment when the parent’s needs are projected onto the child and the child is not able to develop a sense of themselves as a separate individual. Having no siblings with which to compare oneself to, or watch as they interact with shared parents, means the opportunity to have a more objective stance is lost. The process of ‘dethronement’, when the birth of a sibling enables the child the possibility of moving from passive receiver of parental attention to active participant with the newcomer, is unavailable to the only-child. What does this mean in practice? My research indicates that on the positive side the only-child spends so much time alone that they develop very rich imaginary worlds and usually feel comfortable in their own company. Less positive is the sense of feeling separate from others, not knowing the ‘rules of the game’ with regard to social interaction, and as co-researcher Georgina said: seeing the world in black and white.
In the adult world
what is allowed
and what is not
is not defined
in the way
the rules of childhood are.
So many shades of grey
are hard to deal with
when as a child
you have grown up
in a world of black and white
rules set by adults.
As a child Georgina described herself as ‘serious, sensibly irresponsible, quietly rebellious, calmly angry’ which epitomises the tension between the only-child’s need to be responsible as ‘the little adult’ (parallel to the eldest child), and the sense of being the ‘baby’ in the family (similar to the youngest child). Problems with differentiation and separation are more common for the only-child. Sibling rivalry though painful is seen by both psychoanalytic and family therapists to be an important experience in the process of differentiation (7) (8). The oedipal developmental stage of separation and independence, attained through renunciation of the opposite sex parent, and identification with the same parent, leads to internalised parental authority via the super-ego. However instead of a resolution of the oedipal triangle for the only-child, Feldman states that ‘the female child seems to remain fixated in her attachment to her father. The male child remains attached to a mother who reinforces dependency’ (9) Although this is not inevitable, dependency and lack of separation are potential hazards for the only-child whose parents have not separated from their own parents, or are avoiding problems in their own relationship. Children who engage with siblings can be more spontaneous and less encumbered. Siblings help foster differentiations which can prevent fusion within the family and can provide a mutual regulatory process of an ‘observing ego’ unavailable to the child who has none (10).
How can we help as therapists?
In my experience one of the positive aspects of working with an only-child is that they respond well to therapy. They rarely find it difficult to be the focus of attention and even when their experience of attention has not been positive they find one to one conversations much easier than group situations. The only-child enjoys the familiarity of the ‘Specialness’ of the therapeutic relationship. They also show a better than average ability to reflect on themselves and others’ behaviour, a result of being an observer more often than a participant.
The most common theme the adolescent only-child brings is once again concerned with friendships and relating. Later there may also be issues around leaving home and separating from their parents. This can be particularly difficult for those who have overly attached, but well meaning anxious parents. My research showed that the only-child with over-protective parents, found adolescence a time to rebel. One co-researcher described how she became rebellious as a teenager and in her twenties got into self-defeating patterns of behaviour in an attempt to separate from both her external and internalised parents:
I partly became very rebellious
did opposite things
like I’d leave my jobs
without any other jobs to go to
going on the dole.
However most only-children do not rebel until much later in life, a consequence of needing to be responsible and take care of parents’ well-being. They often wait until the death of their parents, before they focus on their own separation issues. This is a consequence of their fear to be openly different from the image their parents have laid their hopes and expectations on.
One of the most important aspects of only-child behaviours, on which therapists may reflect, is the discrepancy in the way the only-child appears and how they inwardly feel. Their adult ways often project a sense of social maturity that they do not feel. Dependency needs are kept under wraps, whilst their independence is clearly manifest. Conversely, other only-children feel very stuck in their dependency needs and find it difficult to take on adult roles when they become an adult, because of never having had the opportunity to be a child.
The experience of growing up without siblings is different, and one that may mean the young person has more difficulties in relating, sharing, and being a child. I do not think this is inevitable, any more than I believe the only-child is a lonely child. However, they do often want and need times alone, which is familiar and comforting, rather than spending time with other children. Whilst an only-child is used to being the centre of attention, when this is not the case it can be difficult for them to adjust. This means that they can feel very inhibited in groups of children where they are expected to vie for attention, rather than just expect it. The only-child needs more encouragement than most children to play and be childlike. This can be challenging because they have not learned to share with other siblings, so they do not think in this way. Possessions belong to them and them alone. This is why the only-child can be viewed as selfish because they have not had on-going opportunities to learn to share. When they reach school age it is not unusual for the only-child to over-compensate, knowing they ought to share, but finding it unfamiliar. They may also not realise that they also have to protect their own interests. Because the only-child is mostly treated fairly by parents they expect this from everyone else. It can be hard for them to come to terms with the fact that other children will not treat them as their parents do.
Personally I have always felt very sensitive to the whole idea of sharing. It seems such a simple concept but I realise that as an only-child my actual concept of sharing is quite different to my friends who grew up with siblings. A simple illustration is:
The last piece of cake
As a child the last piece of cake was most likely to be given to me. As I grew up I came to understand that I should be willing ‘to share it’. What did this mean? For me it meant letting the other person have it. Even now I do not automatically think in terms of dividing. Then when something is divided, I expect it to be equal and I feel irritated if I am put into the position of having to choose between the large or small piece. So what is this about? My partner, (also an only-child), always cuts the cake unequally and offers me the choice, or takes the small piece (dispelling the myth he is selfish). Either way I am left with the ‘it’s not fair’ feeling, as I have lost out on ‘proving’ my ability to share (and appear not selfish). My partner wants me to have the bigger piece to alleviate his childhood feelings of shame when he was asked to share his toys and felt unwilling to do so. His unwillingness to share his ‘toys’ remains, but it is dispelled by the sharing he can control like the ‘cake’.
Finally, I have illustrated how only-children believe they have to be ‘the good child’, or ‘the responsible little-adult’. These behaviours in child-hood lead to a great deal of positive reinforcement from adults. Detrimentally it can mean that only-children are slow to develop a sense of who they are in relation to others, as Poppy relates:
People saw this little girl
doted on by her mother
doted on by her father
I was really happy
I was taken here – there – and everywhere
I was lost in it somewhere!
I don’t think I stuck up for myself
I wasn’t encouraged to
I just played the role of
a good little girl
Therapists are in a good position to challenge the only-child’s need to be overly ‘responsible’, ‘a little-adult’ or a ‘good’ child and allow opportunities for them to reflect on who they are rather than who they believe others want them to be.
Intensity and Independence
To conclude, two further issues for therapists to reflect upon, with regard to the only-child, is intensity and independence. Working with clients, like Lexi and Nico, is very rewarding because these only-children really engage in the therapeutic relationship. However it is very easy to be seduced into thinking that their difficulties in relating outside the therapeutic relationship are not problematic. It is this intensity of relating that may lead the only-child to have difficulties that can be carried into later life. As children they never had to either compete for, or share attention with another child, and this is a major piece of learning that people brought up with siblings automatically have.
The second issue is that of independence. Looking at this from a social perspective, we know that western society promotes independence rather than inter-dependence. The only-child has many of the attributes of the independent, successful, autonomous individual so respected in our society. Books on parenting only-children extol this as one of the positive aspects and major virtues of having one-child. Whilst I accept independence is important, the only-child misses out on the experience of inter-dependence. They have little opportunity, in their early years, to engage in play in similar ways to children with siblings who learn this inter-personal skill. One of the strongest messages I continually receive, via the website is how much only-child-adults enjoy their independent nature. However this is usually accompanied with a longing to feel close to someone, as they did as a child, coupled with a fear of dependency.
I think being an only child
it’s like teaching yourself
to be independent
kind of use your own ingenuity
I see that as a great strength
I won’t let anybody do things for me
then once I’ve been won over
I get a bit taken over
it’s not their fault
some part of me wants
to be dependent
not have to worry.
Two recent email respondents wrote the following comments which I think gives a balanced view of some of the challenges only-children face as adults, some of which could have been addressed as children. In particular the second email highlights the importance of witness or existential validation. Essentially this means that because the only-child does not have siblings to compare themselves with, they have no shared history from a sibling perspective. They can experience this as a lack and therapists need to acknowledge this sense of something missing. The only-child experience is different and is often misunderstood by people with siblings, particularly if they are not close to them and have negative memories of sibling rivalry. Such people are often envious of the only-child who received sole parental attention. What they overlook is that sibling interaction is an important contributor to social and emotional development (11)(12).
My childhood was not an unhappy one,
I think being an only child
has made me resourceful,
independent and happy -
to be in my own company.
I am never bored,
even in traffic jams.
However, I feel different,
and can recognize some grandiosity
in the way I think about myself -
which is very annoying!
I find it difficult to form friendships
which go beyond the small talk stage.
I have few close friends.
I also find staffroom chat
and parties very uncomfortable
It was nice to share with someone
who actually understands
that being an only
isn’t all about being spoilt
getting your own way.
It can be a lot of pressure,
crippling in its own way
hard to break out of.
To this day,
I feel a tightening
in the pit of my stomach
if someone says:
“I don’t want my child to be an only”
as if it’s some sort of terrible disease
that turns you into a monster.
An only is just a product
of their environment.
And I am of mine.
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2. Newman S, Parenting an only child: The joys and challenges of raising your only one. 2nd edition, Doubleday; (2001)
4. Pitkeathley, J. Emerson, D. Only child: How to Survive being One. London: Souvenir Press; (1994).
5. Sorensen, B. Not Special but Different: The only-child experience. Self & Society Vol. 33 No 6 AHP; (2006)
6. Sorensen, B. Spoiled or Spoilt: The Shame of Being an Only. Therapy Today Vol. 17 No. 3 BACP publishing; (April 2006)
7. Byrd, B. De Rosa, A. & Craig, S. The Adult who is an Only Child. Psychological Reports; 1993, 73, 171-177(1993)
8. Neaubauer, P. B. The importance of the sibling experience. In A.J. Solnit (ed) Psychoanalytic study of the child Vol 38. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press P325-326; (1983)
9. Feldman, G. Three’s Company: Family Therapy with Only-Child Families. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 7: 43-46; (1981)
10. Bank, S. P., & Kahn, M. D. Sister-hood brother-hood is powerful: Sibling Subsystems and family therapy. Family Process, 14, 317-319; (1975)
11. Coles, P. The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac; (2003)
12. Mitchell, J. Siblings. Cambridge: Polity Press; (2003)
13. Mabey, J.& Sorensen, B. Counselling for Young People. Buckingham: OUP; (1995)