Why can only children find it difficult to ‘separate’ from their parents’?

by on February 12, 2011

in Bernice's Posts



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.

Feeeling close

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.

  • K-anon

    Another very good post!  As an only adult, I think I am still working on this one.  I moved across country for college and then grad school and specifically have not lived in my parents’ city for just this reason. And yet, I still can’t seem to find my own way.  Because of the recent health problems, I am even more dependent on them than before and it drives me nuts while at the same time I am terrified if something were to happen to them.  I need help now, but getting if from them (well, mostly from my strict mother) means that I am giving up any of the small amount of  independence I have worked so hard to attain.

  • Zudesign

    I moved 12,000 miles away from my mother, and still I carry the feelings of guilt that I am responsible for her emotional well being.  She subtly reminds me of this endlessly. She is 83, I am 55. I just wish it would all end. It’s like my life is on hold till it happens.  My mother in law is now 97 so I am very aware that peace may not come for many years.  She refuses all help.   A great post and something for me to think about.

  • Lane

    I’m an only child of a single Father who was 19 wen I was born. When he passed away in Iraq 4 years ago I snapped. I never even thought about moving out of his house or living away from him. Even when he was deployed I would receive at least one letter for every day he was gone… sometimes more depending on how much time he had every day to write. I wrote him just as many. After his death I had been so emotionally, financially and physically dependent on him I spent years struggling to be Just “Lane” and not “Lane and Daddy”.

    I was crushed and to this day I visit his grave every day no matter what. I tried to not go one day, but found myself so racked by guilt at 11 o’clock at night that I was climbing the fence to the cemetery so “He wouldn’t think I forgot him” .

    This is a great article… It was kind of cathartic to know that I’m not the only one who has these feelings.   

    • Jilly

      I too am an only child and also have the same feelings of guilt. My father was a dominant figure in our household and in order to keep the peace my Mother and I conformed, even though there were many arguments. When I married my Dad and to some extent didn’t like the fact that my husband and children were my priority and neither did they like the children going to their other grandparents house to stay.  Because of this, they made my life difficult by not saying much when I called round to see them or said negative things and played on my emotions to make me feel guilty.

       My Mother died this week after suffering three years of illness, she was only 65.  My dad has completely isolated me and hardly or only under duress asked me to help with the funeral arrangements.  He is being so very difficult and as he has fallen out with my mothers family is trying to exclude them as well.  After all the difficulties and the threat of him moving away, I still feel guilty.  My husband tells me to not conform but still I am, even though my Mother who saw the light in the end, would have told me to go my own way.  But I can’t seem to.  The worse he treats me the nicer I am to him.  It’s an awful situation. I am 45.

  • Susan Carr

    What a great post. My Mom had me late in life (42) and we were always so close as my father drank alot. After he died, it was just us. My job constantly moved me from city to city and mom would visit for months at a time. One time, in between visits, she was hit by a car and killed. I got the call and, not having any other relatives, drove to her city, planned her service (I didn’t really know what to do since I’d never been to a funeral), sorted out her things and put them in storage. I don’t remember doing alot of this-I guess I was in shock. While doing this, the company I worked for was sold and we were all let go. I now had no job, no income and no one fix me a cup of tea and tell me it was gonna be okay.

    It has been years but feels like yesterday. My wound is still wide open.

  • Nina

    I am 27 yo and wanna kill myself because im fighting to separate from my mother (i have no father) and it seems impossible! Im not even a real person, I dont have my own life! I am already dead.. I cant stand it anymore. :’(

    • Bavicca

      Hi Nina

      I don’t know you and it’s three years since you posted. I hope you’re hanging in there somewhere. I’m 27now and I’ve wanted to kill myself several times for the very same reason. What kept me going after I’d decided how to execute it, was an internet article that asked me to make my own parents life a pain. It asked me to take revenge. I can’t say I’ve been successful in revenge or if I’ve managed to separate, but I’ve found someone who fills up the void. He helps me separate, atleast tries. I know he’ll always be there for me.
      Just don’t give up Nina. I know it’s the easiest thing to do. But I’m sure your life has a lot more to offer than your mom. And you have a lot more to offer to this world too. Set your eyes on that goal. Arise Nina. Come on. Yiure not alone.


  • Aaron

    I’m an only child (19) and I am finding it super hard to emancipate from my father emotionally. My mom and I don’t get along (I love her to death) but it’s always been me and my dad and well lately we just keep fighting. We’ve been fighting since I hit my teens. I live at home while in college because dorms are 10K a semester and I can’t afford that. It’s been hard but this article has really started helping me. Tonight my dad said me and him were done and I kind of feel we need to be done. I love him and I know he loves me but we got into a huge fight tonight and I think it’s time to emotionally separate myself from them and live my own life.

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