How can you support your daughter as an only child?

by on February 8, 2014

in Bernice responds

Hi Bernice

I am the mother of a teenage (14 year old) only daughter. Her father and I have always encouraged her to be independent and courageous. She is talented at sports, excels at her school work and is respected by her peers and teachers.

Despite all this, she has few close friends and often seems lonely. She is more serious and mature than many of her peers and she is not afraid to speak her mind – which often alienates her from others. She does not ‘suffer fools gladly’. I am starting to feel guilty for her being an only child as she seems unable to form close bonds with others.

I don’t know what to do or how to support her in this. Any advice?

Bernice replies: My first response is please do not feel guilty there are a lot worse experiences than being an only child! Clearly your daughter has a lot of positive things going for her, as stated in your first paragraph.

However there are certain statements you make where I can offer some alternative ways of viewing things.

You describe your daughter as ‘more serious and mature’ than many of her peers. Only children often seem more mature because, with the absence of siblings, the only people they have to model themselves on are adults. However only children are usually not as mature as they appear. This is because they do not interact with children on a continual day-to-day basis. They can appear more serious because they do not have the same opportunities to be childlike with siblings.

The difficulty for only children, who primarily have only adult models to learn from, is that they tend  to develop quasi-adult behaviours that do not sit well with other children. I expect this is what underlies your daughter’s ability ‘to speak her mind’. As she has not had a sibling, who would inevitable impact on the way she speaks and behaves in the world, she has not learned when to modify her speech or behaviour. Neither will she have learned the impact her speech and behaviour may have on others. Siblings are not so understanding as a parent!

The result of only observing parent behaviours means the only child will unconsciously take on the way a parent behaves and speaks. This means the child will demonstrate those behaviours she has learned to her peers, which can seem rather different to what they expect and can appear to them somewhat alienating.

I expect you daughter sub-consciously expects all children to behave fairly and thoughtfully like her parents and other adults. The rough and tumble of normal child interaction would feel quite alien and childish to her in comparison to the way adults behave; hence the ‘not suffering fools gladly’.

Finally, siblings offer a rich source of learning to deal with conflict. Children learn to negotiate relationships by trial and error and if they upset a sibling it is not the end of the world, as they will be have been upset by a sibling many times too. However it does give them an insight into the way they impact on others, which makes social situations outside of the family less scary, more predictable and more comprehensible. Something us only-children often find hugely challenging throughout our lives.

You can help her see the consequences of her speech and behaviours and the impact they will have on her friendships. However you may also want to look at the way you are with her. Can you be a child with her? Or do you always take the adult role? I think it’s important that at least some of the time you can bring your ‘inner child’ out and let her experience child like qualities of play, creativity, etc. She may be fourteen but I think what is missing is a sense of fun and care free-ness which I believe is a particularly important experience for only children or they become overly responsible adults who find relationships hard to negotiate.

I hope some of what I said resonates with you and you find it helpful and you can read more by following these links:

Are only children more mature?,

So how does an only-child deal with conflict?,

Why do we expect the world to be fair?,

Life stage: Adolescence,

The negative side of being special


Thank you Bernice for replying to my post.  I am very glad that I came across your website as many of the articles certainly resonate with our family!  Our girl has had a very challenging time over the past couple of years, particularly with sporting injuries & surgery.  Whilst these disappointments have brought her maturity and resilience to the forefront, I believe she has lost some capacity to be a child and just have fun.

Thank you once again and I look forward to your future articles.

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