I was asked the question: Why can an adolescent who grows up as an only child be so hard upon themselves? I believe the answer is partly found in the nature of adolescence, and partly in the dynamics of the single or only child family.

Consider the dynamics of adolescence first.  This is the age during which two powerful new performance objectives bring pressures to bear—to act more grown up, and to act more womanly or manly.

The first performance pressure begins with the separation from childhood in early adolescence (ages 9-13.)  At this point, the young person becomes dissatisfied with being defined and treated as just a child, now wants to start acting older, and feels the pressure to keep up with and measure up to older acting peers. For example, there is the need to experience what is only allowed “older” people, like getting to watch R-rated movies, social network on the Internet, have a cell phone, go to concerts, stay up and out later, qualify for a driving license, get a part-time job, start dating, go to parties, experiment with recreational substance use, and have some degree of sexual experience. These are all rites of passage into the world of becoming older and more “adult.”

The second performance pressure arises with puberty, usually beginning during early adolescence, as hormones change body shape, bring about sexual maturity, and get the journey to becoming a young woman or young man underway. Now, how womanly or manly one appears and acts has powerful social implications with peers as social stereotypes and media icons dictate the definitions to be desired.  Being thin and pretty enough can pressure teenage women to diet, apply make-up, and wear form-flattering dress, while being strong and tough enough can pressure teenage men to muscle up their bodies, take more physical risks, and act more aggressively.   

Both adolescence and puberty can cause the young person to be unduly hard on themselves, first for not fitting in and keeping up with more knowing and experienced social companions (“I feel out of it!”), and second for not mirroring and matching cultural ideals of youthful appearance (“I hate how I look!”) It’s really easy to feel deficient on both counts in adolescence. Although socially sheltered by protective parents, the adolescent only child is still subject to these teenage pressures. At a self-conscious, socially comparative and competitive age, it feels important to be grown up and womanly or manly "enough." 

Now consider dynamics in the only child family. Whatever else this family may be, it is not usually laid back and relaxed. With first child and last child in one, parents take their parenting very seriously because having an only child is the only chance at child-raising they get. Conscientious, deliberate, careful, forward looking, and highly responsible, they want to do right by their child and for the child’s future.  In response to their loyal dedication, the child wants to do right by the parents too, and so strives to be conscientious, deliberate, careful, forward looking, and highly responsible too. In an only child family, parents and only child are trying very hard for each other.

While parents will say that they simply want the best for their adolescent only child, the teenager may interpret this well-wishing differently: “They want the best from me, they really mean!” And to some degree the young person is usually correct. With the parents’ high investment in their single child comes a high expectation of return – for her to be well, to behave well, to do well, and to turn out well. For the only child, that expectation can feel like an obligation to repay parents for all they have given. And should anything go “wrong” in the child’s life, from problems encountered to unhappiness experienced, the parents are likely to fault themselves. “What could we have done differently to spare our only child this difficulty or pain?”

Parents of an only child are hard upon themselves. And since the rule of imitation, “like parents/like child,” is always in force in the only child family because of how closely the only child identifies with parents, the boy or girl learns to hold themselves to high account, to be hard upon themselves, just like the parents.

Then there are three additional factors in the only child family that can contribute to how hard the adolescent only child can be on themselves.

First, there is striving to match parental performance. Because there are no siblings in the family, the differentiation between parents and children that occurs in the multiple child family, where there is the distinction between the “we” of parents and the “they” of children is less likely to be made. In the only child family, the child tends to feel part of parental “we,” accepted into the parents’ social world, adultized by primary companionship with parents, socially and verbally precocious on account of that association.

Granted a degree of equal standing and say with parents, feeling much on their level, the only child is prone to applying equal standards to his own performance. He believes he should strive to perform as well as they and so develops exaggerated performance standards in response. Often treated as older than his age and approved for it, he pushes himself to act that way, and learns to be hard on himself in the process. The watchword for parents is: maintain sufficient distinction between parents and only child so he measures himself by standards that fit peers of his younger age, and not the competence of older age of older age adults. So communicate: "It's not fair to expect yourself to do everything as well as us since we have had so many more years of practice than you."

Second, there is striving to make parents proud. Because parents loom so important in the only child’s life, because they do so much for her, because they matter so much, there is a heightened desire to satisfy parents and make them proud. Conversely, there is often a fear of displeasing, of not measuring up to what parents want, of letting them down, of disappointing them and in the process becoming disappointed in herself.  When mistakes are made, when failure occurs, when problems arise, when parental expectations are not met, the only child can be hard on herself because she struggles so hard to please. The watchword for parents is: ease the concern for their approval by constantly affirming the independence and unconditional commitment of parental love, and by being open and honest and accepting when it comes to admitting their own failures and shortcomings. So communicate: "We are meant to be human beings, not perfect ones."

Third, there is the only child striving to do well for himself or herself. Thought well of by parents, the only child tends to think well of himself and is usually dedicated to doing well on his behalf, high self-esteem and a strong achievement motivation both hallmarks of most only children. But how well is the question? In general, their reviews of his capacity and potential is overstated by enthusiastic parents as they make more of his accomplishments than is necessarily so, creating the impression that he is superior, exceptional, and outstanding when in more objective eyes he is simply average. So in their enthusiasm and encouragement, parents way say, “You can be whatever you want to be!” “You can accomplish whatever you dream!” Meant to be encouraging, these statements can be problematic.

To the degree that the only child believes these rave reviews and unlimited potentiality, he may be encouraged to strive to achieve beyond what his operating capacities actually allow. Because he is a star in parental, he believes he must strive for stardom. He may even believe that he has to turn out extremely well or successful to make his parents look good. The adolescent only child can be hard on himself in striving to fulfill his expectation for excessively high accomplishment.The watchword for parents is: help your only child develop a realistic assessment of his capacities. So communicate: "You don't have to do great things for yourself or us; an honest effort is good enough."

If the adolescent only child has ample cause to be hard on him or herself, is this necessarily a bad thing? I don’t think so. There is often the gift of industry—working hard to accomplish one’s goals. There is often the gift of integrity—sticking to one’s values and what feels right. There is often the gift of motivation—determination to do what one does well. Self-dedication is one hallmark of the adolescent only child, and this includes concern for one’s future and taking serious responsibility for leading the only life that one is given.

For more about having an only child, being an only child, or being partnered with an only child, see my book, “The Future of Your Only Child.” For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com.

I welcome reader questions and suggested topics for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Adolescent Adjustment to the Strong-willed Parent

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