In this post I am looking at one of the difficulties some only children have as they grow to develop as an individual in their own right, with a sense of an autonomous self. This differentiation from parent figures is a requirement for all children. Each child needs to separate psychologically from its parent, if not the parent-child relationship is characterised by a lack of separation emotionally, physically and financially. Often these three are combined, so it is not always that clear, and inevitably there is some overlap. When this occurs the child-parent relationship is one of enmeshment.
What is enmeshment?: Enmeshment is literally – giving yourself away to another – living outside of yourself. Whilst only children are not necessarily enmeshed with a parent(s), and equally enmeshment can be true of sibling children, there is a high incidence with the single child simply because of the intensity of the relationship between child and parent(s).
Emotional separation does not occur when the child becomes the centre of the parent(s) universe, all attention is centered on them and the household revolves around them, but not in a way that puts the child’s needs first. This is the overly protective parent, whose own anxieties are so high that they are unable to let go sufficiently to allow the child to find its own way forward, as a separate human being. For example a mother who involves herself with every aspect of a child’s life, from choosing their clothes to continually monitoring everything they do, and placing them under constant surveillance is attempting to control the child’s development in unhelpful ways. This can occur particularly when the father is absent either physically or emotionally, or where there is divisiveness in the family, or just one parent. As a result this can engender in the child a fear of the world, an inability to take risks, and an overriding feeling of responsibility toward the parent to keep them happy. Unfortunately this does not end at childhood!
One of the important psychological milestones is for a child to be able to differentiate from their parents’; that is separation both emotionally and physically. Normally this usually occurs in the teenage years; and includes the need for the adolescent, at least for a short time, to reject their parents and identify with their peers. This is why the teenage years are so tough, but psychological separation is a necessary part of growing up. A parent needs to allow this to happen and not become ‘hurt’ by the rejection they experience, or become punitive, or put their own emotional needs first. Sadly many only children find it hard to do this psychological separation, because of the pressure placed upon them, not to upset their parents’ expectations. This lack of separation can continue well into adulthood and sometimes never actually occurs until the parent dies.
The only child who is unable to separate emotionally is less likely to be able to separate physically (I am not talking about incest) as an adult. Because they have been unable to emotionally separate, they become dependent on their parents and find it difficult to leave home. There is usually a strong message not to leave, particularly for the only child with one parent, often the mother, who is unable to let go and engenders an enormous feeling of responsibility for their own emotional welfare in their son or daughter. I have met many only child adults who have moved great distances – countries or even continents, to separate physically whilst still finding they have not been able to make the emotional separation, which is the next stage, but often harder to do.
Financial separation is also an important part of growing up and separating. The only child adult who has never had a sibling to compete with for resources and has experienced being the sole recipient of their parents’ attention, aspirations and emotions can easily become enmeshed financially. This is not so much about the level of wealth but the level of financial support which can be used to keep the child dependent, prevent them from leaving home, or getting a career which suits them (i.e. which is not following the parents’ profession or joining the family business). Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, in my experience, only child adults are less likely to feel able to contest these expectations knowing there is no other sibling to do this or at least be expected to do this instead.
The end result of this type of enmeshment, is a lack of a sense of self, a lack of control over ones life, a potential for low self-esteem, and at worst the feeling of being a ‘victim’ rather than an ‘author’ of one’s life.