All children need to feel special particularly from their parents. In fact one of the advantages of being brought up an only child is often considered to be the extra attention you receive. The assumption is that the more attention the better and this can lead the only child to feel particularly ‘special’. I mean special in the old fashioned sense of a child who is very much loved and nurtured. However the special child can also be the child whose parent’s are blind to behaviours the child acquires as a result of their attention, which are not useful as the child moves from childhood to adolescence and finally to adulthood.
With no siblings to counteract the sense of specialness that an only child experiences within the family, it can be a rude awakening to enter the real world where people are not going to treat you in this way. Many emails I receive are from only child adults who have had a really tough time at school because:
- They were not used to sharing attention with other children
- They were seen to have rather odd behaviours due to being ‘little adults’
- They found it difficult to negotiate the social patterns of behaviour between peers because of their lack of exposure to this in pre-school years.
- Their lack of sibling interaction left them with rigid and dysfunctional interpersonal boundaries.
So how does specialness manifest?
A child who is brought up to feel overly special will not have a realistic sense of itself. This is because what is being reflected back to them, from their parents, is idealised. All parent’s want to see their child in the best possible light but this can mean they are unwilling to see any faults and can load their child with expectations of being perfect. This is problematic because if the child realises he/she is not perfect it can lead to a sense of inadequacy, or if they believe the parental view, it can lead to a sense of grandiosity – that is having a sense of self which is much greater or grander than the reality and therefore unrealistic.
I use the term ‘grandiosity’ to explain the problems that arise for the only-child who is seen as ‘special’ by their parents a result of being an only one. In the stories in my book from China and Taiwan, where only one child is the norm or the only choice, I illustrated how this specialness can be a particular problem giving rise to many conflicting feelings in the child. Whilst it is important for every child to feel special and unique , if specialness is combined with a lack of sibling comparison, the child will be unable to develop a sense of who they are in relation to others. It is important for a child to be able to compare its own behaviour in relation to another child, preferably in the same family, to enable a sense of proportion. Another problem with being special is that it often means you carry the happiness of another, and thereby you become responsible for that happiness. If this is the happiness of a parent it makes it difficult to cut the ties and separate psychologically.
Being special can also be problematic even if you have siblings, but for the only child it goes hand in hand with a loss of opportunity to be dethroned or de-centred in the family. This psychological de-thronement provides an important shift of perceptual field and happens when a sibling is born. It is a process that takes place as parents re-focus their attention on the new child so the first child is de-centred in their attention. The child learns to accept a relative abandonment by parents who no longer focus all their attention on the first child, this offers the first child an opportunity to re-structure relations within the family. This is important as it helps to overcome jealousy and grandiosity and engenders a sense of belonging in the family unit by not being central to it.
By failing to experience de-thronement, it can cause problems relating to others. When only-children finally realize they are not special, usually when they go to school, it can come as a shock and may lead to a deflated sense of self and even shame. Whilst some of the negative behaviours from being treated as special can be moderated in the process of interacting with other children, in my experience many only children find it hard to negotiate the spectrum between being the centre of attention or being on the outside, as there is a fear of appearing too pushy if they move centre stage which can result in feeling constantly on the side line.
Similarly, in relationships it is often hard to know what is realistic to expect in terms of attention when we may have been brought up to be very central to our parents lives and have an over developed sense of our importance to others. We may feel quite marginalized by other people’s lack of attention towards us, not realising that this is normal. It may also prevent us fighting for attention when we do need it – as we have never had to do this – it was always there. As one person wrote:
I was special as a child but this has not helped me as an adult. It’s a specialness that not everyone appreciates as I expect a level of attention which others just don’t get. Its not that I think I am a bad or a selfish person but I forget there are others whose needs may come first ‘cos that was not my experience- I was the one who always got what I needed first – even if my parents had to go without to give it to me! I know this must sound very self important but it was so much part of my early life it just feels a normal expectation, so now I feel I have to constantly monitor this need for what others see as neediness or excessive attention-seeking behaviour.