What difference will my becoming different make to my parents?
To appreciate the power of this question, consider three shaping forces in the only child’s growth: similarity to parents, individuality as a child, and differentiation as an adolescent.
1. Similarity to Parents
In a family with multiple children, inevitable human differences between siblings tend to increase tolerance for diversity in parents and can reduce their expectation for similarity not only between the children, but between each child and themselves. The more children parents have, the more acceptance of individual variation there often seems to be.
In an only child family, however, those parental tolerance limits tend to be more narrowly defined because the boy or girl, at least during the first seven or eight years of life, finds becoming the same as parents a positively natural way to grow. Similarity to parents is both rewarding (“I like being like my parents.”) and rewarded (“And my parents like it when I act like them.”). Having so much in common is one of the factors that allows parents and only child to feel so close.
The formative influence of similarity — the child striving to be the same as parents and parents reinforcing and becoming accustomed to that growing resemblance — is usually easy to see. For example, in the absence of siblings, parents usually become the primary model to follow, an adult model that is responsible for the adult-like precocity many only children often seem to develop.
From socializing with parents and their friends, an only child, through identification, imitation, and practice, may develop a grown-up social poise at an early age. From daily conversing with parents, verbal skills may also tend to be advanced. No wonder so many only children act like they are their parents’ social peers, entitled to equal consideration, influence, and status in the family. “I have as much right to decide as you do!” Power from similarity to parents can make only children assertive about personal wants.
2. Individuality as a Child
At the same time that the only child is drawn toward similarity to parents, parents of the only child also encourage growth toward individuality.
People only pay attention to what matters to them and parents pay an enormous amount of attention to their only child because he or she matters so much. In the process of noticing, approving, and nurturing the uniqueness of their child, parental feedback often encourages the only child to develop a heightened sense and appreciation of self. Wed to this strong sense of individuality in childhood, the only child can be very reluctant to give up any of it. “I’ve always known who I am, what I like, and what I want, and I won’t sacrifice a lot of that for the sake of being accepted by someone else.” Power of individuality can make only children stubbornly true to themselves.
3. Differentiation as an Adolescent
Somewhere between ages nine and thirteen, significant psychological and social differentiation in the boy or girl begins to occur. The child needs to grow more psychologically complex in order to one day independently cope with the enormous complexity of the adult world. The name given to this period of transformational change is adolescence. Beginning with the separation from childhood and ending eight to ten years later with the departure into independence, this is a period when major personal and social redefinition occurs.
In a host of ways the child lets parents know “I’m not a child anymore!” Through words and actions, the early adolescent child, rebelling out of childhood, essentially says, “I am going to be different from how I was as a child, from how you are as my parents, and from how YOU want me to be.”
Now, return to the child’s question that began this article: “What difference will my becoming different make to my parents?” The adolescent journey toward more social and psychological independence from family causes most children, but particularly only children who are so closely attached to their parents, to experience some rejection fears about what this growth may cost.
- “Will I become so different that my parents won’t understand me anymore, won’t be close to me anymore, won’t accept me anymore, won’t love me any more?”
Adolescence is an act of courage, particularly for the only child. They brave parental disagreement and disapproval as they push against, pull away from, and contrast themselves with parents who have never faced these differences before in a son or daughter. What kinds of developmental differences occur? Consider just a few examples.
- Suppose parents who hate conflict now have a teenager who loves to argue?
- Suppose parents who groomed a daughter to be very feminine now have a teenager who acts like a tomboy?
- Suppose sports minded parents who coached a son to be athletically competitive now have a teenager who becomes a computer nerd?
- Suppose parents who believe in being very socially conforming and compliant have a teenager who likes to be flamboyant and rebellious?
- Suppose ambitious parents who achieved high grades in school have a teenager who is content to just get by?
- Suppose parents who value staying trim and fit have a teenager who likes to be sedentary and comfortably overweight?
- Suppose parents who are heterosexual have a teenager who is gay?
4. How to Treat Developmental Differences in Adolescence
When significant developmental differences come between the relationship between parents and their adolescent only child, parents have a choice. They can either treat these differences as barriers or bridges for growth. If they treat them as barriers to be broken down, using criticism, consequences, and control, to restore the child to the way he/she used to be, or to conform to how parents are, the rejection fears of the only child may be confirmed. “Either you go out for the team, or we will take the computer away!” “If you don’t lose weight and get regular exercise, you won’t get your allowance.” “You can’t go to school in pants. You will wear a skirt and blouse, or dress!” “We don’t like you when you argue with us.” “No child of ours is going to be gay!” Being an only child, however, and determined to remain true to his or her individuality, the teenager in question may suffer this rejection rather than change and sacrifice authenticity of self. When this punitive response by parents and prideful response from only child occurs, an irreparable breach in the relationship can develop. Most of the estrangements between parents and their adult only child that I have seen in counseling child began by parental unwillingness to accept developmental differences in the child that emerged during adolescence.
What is the solution?
In order to treat these differences as bridges to understanding, parents must cross those bridges out of a sincere desire to learn what the differences are all about. “Can you tell us what you like about arguing?” “How does it feel to question authority?” “What has it been like to wonder about and then decide that you are gay?” So long as a difference can be openly discussed, some mutual accommodation has a chance.
When parents discuss the differences with interest, they send a message of acceptance, and separation anxiety from rejection is allayed. “No part of you, no matter what the difference, can keep us from loving whole of you. The child who will remain, no matter how you change, is the one we have always known and loved.”