By Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Because parents and only children are so tightly bonded and mean so much to each other, separation can cause fears on both sides of the relationship.
Typically, when parents think about separation, the anxiety that comes to mind has to do with learning to tolerate distance and absence from each other, but this is only one form of the problem among many that I see in counseling. This is the second in a series of articles that will explore six common separation anxieties that can occur in only child families. These common anxieties can be classified as follows:
Safety Anxiety: from a separation of place or distance between parents and only child.
Disagreement Anxiety: from a separation of opinions or wants between parents and only child.
Rejection Anxiety: from a separation of identity or lifestyle between parents and only child.
Independence Anxiety: from a separation of responsibility or self-support between parents and only child.
Loyalty Anxiety: from a separation of love or commitment between parents and only child.
Departure Anxiety: from a separation caused by a parent’s failing health or death.
Is opposition to parents worth the cost?
The cost of disagreement, opposition and emotional estrangement between family members who prize harmony and feeling close, is often one both parents and only child are reluctant to pay:
“I hate fighting with my parents because it feels so lonely. Like they’re on one side of the argument and I’m on the other.”
“We hate fighting with our child. It feels like we’re acting like enemies when all we want is to be friends.”
Anxiety from disagreement arises from the sense of separation it creates. From time to time, differences in wants, beliefs, perceptions, or values will inevitably set parents and only child apart, creating the question: how are they going to resolve the difference and get back together again?
One of the most important skills for living in relationships that parents have to teach their only child is the acceptance, expression, and management of disagreement. The boy or girl needs to be taught that disagreement is normal, healthy, and productive.
It’s normal: Since no two people are exactly alike, there will always be human differences about what is desired, what is fair, what is right, and what is true.
It’s healthy: By engaging in disagreement, people are able to assert their individual points of view.
It’s productive: By resolving disagreements in a way all parties can support, the fabric of relationships becomes stronger.
To avoid disagreement for fear of emotional estrangement or conflict is to diminish the acceptance of human diversity and the potential for honest intimacy in the relationship. That puts the only child at current and later risk.
The current risk is described by the adolescent only child who complains: “My parents don’t understand how I really feel. They think they know me, but they don’t. But I’m not stupid. Why tell them what they won’t want to hear? We’d just get in a fight. It’s not worth the hassle. I’d rather they didn’t know me than have them argue with what I have to say.”
The later risk commonly surfaces in marriage counseling where an adult only child shows evidence of not having learned the value of disagreement or having acquired the tools for managing it while growing up. Now this newlywed is:
afraid to speak up for himself or herself (in order to avoid possible disagreement, suppresses significant opinions, wants, and values)
afraid to stand up for a position that personally matters (in order to avoid argument and abandons that position instead)
afraid to work out a joint resolution (so, to avoid quarreling, gives up instead)
Fear of emotional separation at the point of disagreement can shut down a child’s growth, sacrificing self-definition and self-interest at his or her cost. (Of course, at the opposite extreme are only children who acquired a different intolerance for disagreement. These grew up unable to stand not getting their way, tyrannizing parents who could not brave their own separation fears of disagreement. In marriage, these adult only children may try to tyrannize their partners, too.)
What to say to the only child about disagreement.
Parents can help build an acceptance of disagreement by explaining its function and nature to their only child while he/she is still in childhood. Here are a few points parents might want to cover.
“In all relationships, even between mom and dad, there will sometimes be disagreements, differences about how to act, what to say, what happened, what is wanted, what is right, and what is true. Managing these differences is a normal part of getting along. You will have some differences with us and we will have some with you.”
“By feeling free to disagree, each person gets to talk about what matters, and because it matters, it is important that the other person listen, even when he or she disagrees with what is being said.”
“Disagreement helps people keep their individuality by talking about how they see, want, and believe differently from each other.”
“Loving each other doesn’t mean always agreeing with each other; it means that sometimes disagreeing is okay.”
“Another part of loving each other means talking about and settling disagreements in a safe way so that nobody gets hurt.”
“Sometimes disagreements can be frustrating when they are hard to understand or settle, so you or we may get angry. This can make disagreement feel scary because in the angry moment sometimes it’s hard to feel loving feelings in yourself or in us. But that doesn’t mean anger has ended love. Anger has only interrupted the flow of loving feelings for a short while.”
When the disagreement has been settled, love between us is right where it was and always will be. Anger just made it hard to feel and see.”
For the child entering adolescence (from ages nine to thirteen) it can be helpful for parents to understand that there will be an increasing number of disagreements ahead. By doing so, they signify that this is normal, to be expected, and is not something that is wrong or to be feared.
“As you become a teenager, there will be more differences coming between us because adolescence is the process of you and us growing socially apart. You will want more room to grow, but sometimes we will want to hold on when you believe we should let you go. Then there will be disagreement between us. As you push for more freedom and independence, we will restrain that push within what we think are limits of safety and responsibility. The job for you and us at these times of disagreement is to keep our loving relationship together as we struggle to grow apart.
Therefore, we want you to know this:
No matter how hard you push against us, you cannot push our love away.
No matter how socially separate our lives become, we will always be connected as family.
No matter how hard our disagreements, if we hang in there, we will always be able to work through them or around them in a way that all of us can accept.”
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