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The Adolescent Only Child

Only children grow through adolescence their own way.

Families are formative. They shape the growing child who partly develops in response to the particular dynamics and circumstances of the household.

So there are many books about types of families and the shaping influences they tend to have. For example, children in career military families can grow up to be concerned about public appearance (from reflecting well on the officer parent's reputation) and adaptable to change (from moving every two years.)

The outcomes of these influences begin to emerge during adolescence when the young person has separated from childhood and starts developing the individual and independent characteristics that will mark them as an adult.

A type of family that has always interested me is the one with a single child. From counseling with only child families and with only child adults, and from a lot of reading, I wrote the book The Future of Your Only Child to suggest what some of the formative outcomes from this kind of family upbringing might be.

"Might" is the operative word here, since I am talking about tendencies, not certainties, about what is possible, not ordained.

Three distinctive characteristics separate only child families from those with multiple children.

To begin, the only child is the first and last child in one and so is the only chance at parenting the parents get. Thus they take this charge very seriously. Because they want to do right by their son or daughter, parenting an only child can be high-pressure parenting. They don't want to make mistakes at the child's expense and so are very conscientious and deliberate in their parenting. Usually, the child feels a comparable obligation to do right by the parents. This is not a laid-back family because everyone is trying extremely hard to do their best by each other.

Second, the only child gets the entire social, emotional, and material resources those parents have to provide. He or she is their sole beneficiary. Because parents typically make a high investment in nurturing and providing for the child, they often have a high expectation of return. They expect the child to turn out well. As one parent once memorably told me: "No one who has an only child is content to have an average child, or at least to believe they do." In response, only children tend to want to perform well for their parents.

And third, the only child has unrivaled access to parents and everything they provide. Because the only child has no siblings with whom to connect, to be compared to, to compete against, or to do conflict with, the child becomes "adultized" (socially and verbally precocious) from identifying with and interacting with these primary parental companions.

From what I have seen, only children tend to be powerfully parented. Well attached to parents and well nurtured by them, the only child receives a lot of parental attention, affection, acceptance, and approval that probably contribute one of the more consistent research findings that major researcher about only children, Toni Falbo, at the University of Texas, reports about only children—they tend to develop high self-esteem. Well thought of by parents, they think well of themselves.

So what are some of the formative outcomes that can characterize an adolescent only child? Here are just a few to consider. The adolescent only child can tend:

  • To feel socially self-conscious, and value privacy, from growing up being the sole focus of unrelenting parental scrutiny;
  • To be sensitive to disapproval and be self-critical when elevated standards of conduct and performance are not met;
  • To like social attention from being the center of family attention at home;
  • To be emotionally sensitive from being used to the emotionally sensitive and sensitized relationship with parents;
  • To prefer order and constancy to surprise and change from parents who often organize family life based on planning and predictability;
  • To prefer the company of a "family" of a few close friends to being a social butterfly, from being used to the close and satisfying companionship of parents;
  • To be strong-willed (stubborn and persistent) from being given to and being given into from parents who want to support and empower the child when they responsibly can;
  • To be deeply knowing of parents from the family intimacy they have shared, their good sides and not so good;
  • To feel strongly attached to parents, often carrying a sense of obligation and responsibility for their care;
  • To be uncomfortable with conflict from not having the rough and tumble, push and shove competition with siblings, or much serious disharmony with parents;
  • To have a strong sense of what is "right" and "wrong" from closely identifying with parental standards and values;
  • To be ambitious to achieve from wanting to live up to parental expectations and to invest in themselves to do well for themselves;
  • To be as seriously responsible and conscientious and careful as the parents who, in their parenting, have been that way with the child;
  • To be possessive of significant belongings (from not having to share) but also possessive of sufficient space and time alone for themselves;
  • To have a low susceptibility to peer pressure from being highly committed to self-interest;
  • To have and pursue a strong sense of personal agenda for themselves and be independent in that way;
  • To be obedient to social authority from the mattering of parental approval and from learning early how to get on well with adults;
  • To be dependent on parents for their emotional support, and also being dependable for parents to rely on;
  • To be prone to stress from self-imposed pressure for right conduct, responsible behavior, and high accomplishment, not being relaxed and laid back on that account;
  • To be high controlling from being anxious about making mistakes and not measuring up to high-performance standards she or he has set.
  • To be reluctant to share joint decision-making in relationships where the outcome could affect his or her well being;
  • To know how to be content with his or her own company from spending a lot of time in the family alone.
  • To be comfortable communicating with adults from learning how to socialize on adult terms with parents and parental friends.
  • To have a sense of future from parental concerns for the future of their only child, a sense that keeps growth directed through the immediate temptations and multiple distractions of adolescence.

Because adolescence involves separation from parents, opposition to parents, and differentiation from parents, these developmental changes can be quite painful for a highly attached only child to do. Also, with conditions of childhood so comfortable at home, the only child can be reluctant to alter them.

When the "break" from childhood comes and the need for more independence begins, unwelcome conflict typically occurs between indulgent parents and a child who has been bred to be strong-willed. This abrasiveness troubles both only child and parents for whom the past was so harmonious, for whom the companionship is so important, and for whom displeasing each other can be so hard to bear.

I believe this is why the adolescence of a lot of only children is delayed, often not beginning until middle school or even early high school. When the beginning of adolescence does not occur until early high school, what I call a "collapsed adolescence" can begin. Over a very short period of time, maybe two years, the first three stages of adolescence unfold on top of each other. The negativity and resistance of early adolescence are jammed up against the increased push for freedom and propensity for conflict of mid-adolescence that is jammed up against the need to try more grown activities of late adolescence. This is a lot of fast change and high tension for only-child teenagers and parents to weather.

Parents must maintain a cautionary structure around the only child at this point to give her choice points for safe behavior. They must be available for non-judgmental communication to help her learn from hard experience and inform more risky decisions that she makes. And they must understand that what can be intense conflict with them is not so much about them as about their only child, at last, trying to break free.

Even unfolding on schedule, the first and final stages of adolescence can be particularly challenging for the only child. At the beginning, the separation from childhood in early adolescence (ages 9-13), with the pushing against and pulling away from parents, creates more abrasion, distance, and loneliness. At the end, the departure into trial independence (ages 18-23) can be scary when leaving home can feel like a loss of parents. Now reluctance to let go can protract dependency on parents when the time for more independence has arrived.

Once adolescent growth is finally accomplished, however, many only children and parents can claim a substantial reward—a very intimate and loving friendship that nourishes their adult years.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.) Find more information here.