One of the challenges most of us face growing up as an only child, is that we learn to see the world through adult eyes which can led us to expect a level of interaction that puts us at the centre of the life going on around us. At the same time we often have a very ‘positive’ expectation of other peoples’ behaviour. This is not really surprising. Most only children have mature and reasonably responsible parent/s to guide them throughout their early years who do have their best interests at heart.
As I have described before, a birth of a sibling gives the opportunity for a child to be ‘dethroned’- that is to have the centrality of our existence in our parent/s eyes taken away with the birth of a sibling. We are no longer the only child in the family, we are now in fact the eldest child with potential responsibilities concerning the new sibling.
This process of dethronement is the way we learn to move into a different position in the family and begin to establish a separate identity from that new sibling. We are no longer the ‘baby’ and attention is now divided between us and the new child. (I say child here because something similar can happen if you are suddenly confronted by the arrival of step-siblings which is becoming more common in our society.)
I have found in my practice as a psychotherapist that coming to terms with the unfairness of the world and similarly the unpredictable nature of human reaction can be hard for the only child, as child or adult, because they have never passed through this ‘dethronement stage’ – they have not be shifted from their position at the forefront of parental attention and concern.
I recall one particular adult only child who believed that everyone she met would keep her best interests at heart-this is not an unusual trait. When she got a parking ticket for parking half on a yellow line she was outraged at the ‘unfairness’ of the parking attendant. When she left her handbag next to her in a bar, she was disappointed that anyone would be ‘so unfair’ as to take it. When her husband did not meet her expectations in being as responsible as she is, she felt dismayed by his ‘lack of fairness’.
I admit, as an undergraduate I never locked my room in Halls as I never thought anyone would be so ‘unfair’ as to go in and take my things. Others thought I was mad, I saw them as untrusting, expecting the worst, not having a positive view of human nature! Now I see they had a point – and yes I imagine having their things raided by a sibling was inevitably a lesson I had never learned.
Many only children I encounter are like I used to be: they have a rather overly optimistic expectation of human nature. Not that I think that is bad in itself but it can leave us very vulnerable to people who certainly do not have our best interests at heart.
It also shows a level of naivety that can lead to exploitation or even bullying. To leave ourselves so exposed is not a good thing and often goes hand in hand with another only child trait- taking too much responsibility for other people’s feelings rather than our own. This is not unselfishness but far more to do with enmeshment. When we have not truly separated emotionally and psychologically from our parents it is much harder to take responsibility for oneself as a separate human being who lives in a world that is neither fair nor concerned with our child like naivety.
The world is not fair and perhaps one of the challenges we as adult only children have to accept is this fact and look after ourselves!