I have recently received several emails from parents of onlies and from people in the later stages of life, a time when we re-evaluate how we have lived our lives. It is interesting how often people, at this stage, become more cognisant of the effect growing up an only child has had on their life choices. Similarly parents’ of an only child may notice with each year, the subtle differences in behaviour etc. their child displays in social situations, compared to children with siblings.
In this post I am going to explore some of these issues from both sides of the fence! And a quick thank you to all those who have written to me in the last few months, your emails certainly stimulate my thoughts!
Growing up an only child can be both positive and negative and is often a mixture of the two. From a therapeutic perspective it is not that surprising that negative experience of only-childness leads to more isolation and loneliness in adulthood which continues into later life. When people have had the sort of parenting, which has been more about the needs of the parent than the child, this can have a very damaging effect on self-esteem and the ability to have a sense of who you are in the world. So often this leads people to withdraw from the world and inhabit a place where they feel cut off from normal social interaction.
Lack of family is a definite factor here, so when parents die, and relationships have failed, and there are no children or they have grown up and moved away, the older person can feel very alone. In my experience it is much harder when you are older to make new friendships, so it is important to keep those you make earlier in life alive.
The other side of the coin is that if you have had a good experience and felt nurtured and supported by your parents’, and given plenty of opportunities to learn social skills and make deep friendships, this will mean you have probably managed to have fulfilling intimate relationships and maintain a good balance between the social aspects of life and meeting your own needs.
Of course many of us fall somewhere in the middle of this, I know I do. I still find social occasions a challenge; I do have friends but find my need for intensity greater than theirs. I need time alone and also with my partner, and fortunately as he is an only too, this works well for us. I am fortunate to have two children I am both very close to and separate from! They have their own lives but we are in touch regularly and support each other when necessary.
I think what I have learned over the years, when reading different peoples’ stories, is that the important thing is to be aware of the choices we have, whatever life has thrown at us. We may choose to keep others at a distance , because of the difficulties all relationships seem to give us. However the consequence of this separation from the social world is to feel lonely and this can lead to further self-preservation behaviours that are ultimately self-defeating at best, or self-harming at worst.
An axiom I often quote, is that we need to be ‘the author of our lives’, not the observer. We have to choose to be a survivor, not a victim. Being a victim means you give the responsibility for your life to others and then blame them! The only child may blame their parents’, society, etc. but ultimately we have to take responsibility and make choices to fulfil our lives in order to know who we are and what we need. It is then up to us to manage getting those things, usually by forming good lasting relationships.
So parents’ of onlies, take heart, you can only go so far in offering support. The most important relational experiences you can offer are opportunities for social interaction and good modelling of such things as conflict resolution and nurturing behaviour.
The rest is up to us!