Life Span Theory has been popular as it shows us what the expectations and challenges are at different stages in our life. The theory is based on the idea that during our lives we go through developmental stages and that each stage has unique characteristics, which serve as the building blocks for the next stage. If the tasks of one stage are not complete we take them into the next. I thought this was an interesting model to adapt to the psychological development of only children who grow up without one of the significant social and emotional resources that help to navigate these crucial developmental stages – that is siblings.
Undertaking in-depth interviews with adult only children over several years, the importance of looking at three areas of the only child experience was highlighted. The first is the internal world of the only-child; the second is the inter-subjective world that is constantly being re-created through our interactions with every one we meet and engage with; and finally the world in general. This world is particularly significant as it includes the social and cultural norms and values that impinge on both the internal world and inter-subjective world of the only child.
By taking an only-child life-stage approach I will show how these three worlds interact with one another, through the medium of significant others with whom we engage throughout our lives. Initially this is parents, (as there are no siblings); then peers; teachers; intimate relationships and one’s own children. Of course not everyone experiences all these stages at the same time but everyone is faced with the developmental aspect each stage holds.
Infancy concerns significant relations between the child, its parents, peers and school, which facilitates if things go well initially trust and autonomy, and as the child grows initiative and industry. Only children will be well adjusted if they have experienced attuned parenting from parents’ who are not attempting to fulfil their emotional needs by having a child, and are able to offer opportunities for their child to engage with other children in and outside the home. There is no reason why an only child will be maladjusted just because they have no siblings, as long as parents are able to offer attunement and opportunities to develop socially. However this is not always the case, and some only children suffer both intrusive and neglectful parenting. This will have an effect on the building of trust and autonomy.
Intrusive/Overprotective Parenting occurs when a mother’s (sometimes father’s) emotional needs get in the way of allowing a level of separation and development, normally attained by the child through parents permitting an exploration and manipulation of their environment. In intrusive parenting the parent often prevents any attempt made by the child to explore and become independent. There own insecurities are acted out on the child and their fearfulness is transmitted. This can prevent the child from developing trust in other people as well as the world in general and him/herself in particular. As there are no siblings to dilute this over protectiveness the child becomes highly sensitised to everything around, which later in life can mean an over-sensitive personality, or to compensate and protect the self a shutting down when people or things become too close.
Neglectful Parenting is when the child’s needs are not taken into account because the parent is more concerned in meeting their own, often unfulfilled, emotional needs and therefore have nothing to offer the child. In these cases the child does not have a problem separating but has no support in that process and can become isolated as their own emotional and social needs have never been prioritised or contained. This child will become independent early and be used to meeting their own needs as a parent has not met them. They will also have developed strategies in their attempt to obtain attention, many of which they will take into later relationships. Unfortunately these will be driven from the un-met needs of a child rather than those of an adult and may well cause difficulties. However connected to this, they will also be overly sensitised to the needs of others, initially their parent/s and later friends and partners which may lead them to being other focused and not in touch with a sense of self.
Both intrusive and neglectful parenting is detrimental to the development of self-esteem and can lead to challenges in adulthood when negotiating independence and dependence in relationship is required.
In my next post I will look at the school-age years