In the Early Childhood Stage, we looked at some of the challenges the only child may face when moving into the world of school. We saw these difficulties were by no means inevitable but were common for those only children who had not experienced much peer interaction in their early life, or had parents who found it difficult to separate from their own emotional needs to fulfil the emotional needs of their child.
Adolescence is the time when ‘ego identity’ needs to be achieved: this means knowing who you are and how you fit into the rest of society. Peer groups are particularly significant at this stage as they allow for peer identity to emerge through interaction with others and provide the support for the move from childhood to adulthood by separating emotionally from parents. This is why being able to have other children to interact with at an early stage is so important. However again I would reiterate that the difficulties only children can experience are by no means inevitable and can happen with any child whose parents are unable to detach themselves emotionally at this stage.
Separating from parent’s can be fraught with difficulties for some only children. The process of finding an identity is paramount at this stage – but one that can be extremely difficult if there are enmeshed parental relationships. Enmeshment occurs when parents are unable to separate their own identity from that of their child, seeing the child as an extension of themselves. One result of this is for the child to become overly identified with a parent because they pick up the subconscious messages to both be like the parent and do what the parent expects.
This can lead to the only-child phenomena of appearing mature whilst in fact feeling insecure. The discrepancy arises because the only-child is playing a role, learned as a young child, rather than being themselves. In adolescence they may become more aware of the role they have taken on, but they also feel insecure because they know it is something that is not really integrated. At some level they know it is a false self, taken on to fulfil parental expectations, because they are not able or willing to take on the huge task of disappointing the parent, to be the person they truly are. These feelings of insecurity may enter subsequent stages because of the difficultly of forming a separate identity which a parent may not approve, particularly as by its very nature it will mean they can no longer be seen as an extension of that parent.
As Kate said in her fifties when she finally stood up to her mother:
“I never felt that either of them recognized me for who I was….When I finally stood up to my mother, I remember her first reaction was to beat her fists on the bed and say- You’ve won, You’ve won, You’ve won! And it felt terrifying, really terrifying, a confirmation of my experience, my terror of our relationship being a power battle that we couldn’t both exist,- it either had to be me or her.”
Adolescence is a crucial life stage as separation enables the person to form relationships on their own terms, which is the building block of intimate relationships in the future, as the person moves into adulthood. When separation is not completed the person retains emotional ties with parents that can be detrimental to relating to future partners. The person may also carry conscious or unconscious expectations of being responsible for their parents’ happiness carried over from childhood. This can manifest as feeling huge emotional pressure to prioritise a parental relationship over their own partner and young family. This can become particularly true when one of the parents is divorced or widowed and wishes to lean more heavily on the only child. Sadly, for some only child adult’s, real emotional separation only occurs after the death of both parents. But as mentioned before, this can be true of a sibling child (for example the only girl in a family of male siblings) who has remained emotionally attached and not had the opportunity to separate psychologically in early adulthood.
In the next post I will look at young adulthood.