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Keeping Pressure Off Your Only Child

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To keep pressure off their only child, parents must understand the special pressures that are already built into this relationship - from the parents on themselves, from the parents on the child, and from the child on himself or herself.

Pressures from the parents on themselves

Despite what parents with multiple children often think, parenting an only child is high pressure parenting because less is more. In significant ways, having one child is more demanding and complex than having several children.

As soon as parents have a second child they must compromise their parenting. Now they cannot give as much attention to the first child as they once did, and they can never give as much attention to the second child as they gave to the first. So in this way, pressure to solely attend to each child is reduced because they can't afford the luxury of full absorption in a single child anymore.

For parents of an only child, however, that girl or boy is first and last child in one, the only chance for parenting they get. Because they want to do parenting "right" (provide all their child needs) they apply high standards for themselves, and because they don't want to do "wrong" (cause hurt or allow harm) they live with a lot of worry. This combination of high standards and high worry make parental decision-making a very deliberate, conscientious, and labor intensive process.

The problem here is that they can't put so much pressure on themselves without putting pressure on the child because they lead by example. Fundamentally, what they give their only child is who and how they are. Thus, seeing parents struggling and striving to do their best, the only child usually follows suit, struggling and striving to do his or her best too, to some degree pressures of standards and worry both built in.

In the worst case, there are parents that are perfectionists from elevated standards and overprotective from intense worry. As perfectionist parents, with no tolerance for their own human flaws and faults, they can encourage (by example) the child to be the same. As overprotective parents, they can inspire fear in the child because of all the precautions that they take.

It can be helpful to remember that the only way to be perfect parents is to have a perfect child, and who wants to put an only son or daughter under that kind of pressure? And the only way to keep a child totally protected from worldly harm is too never let him or her out of parental supervision or sight, and who wants to stifle normal risk taking required for a child's healthy growth?

Perfection is ideal and complete protection is impossible, so to serve these masters as parents is both unrealistic and counterproductive. Real is what human beings are - a mix of strength and frailty, wisdom and stupidity, capable of good decisions and bad. Dangerous is what life is - a constant exposure to the unexpected and the uncontrollable. The job of parents is to teach the child to be real and to cope with reality.

If parents want to reduce pressure on their only child, they can start by reducing some of the pressures from high standards and high worry they place upon themselves.

Pressures from the parents on the child

In single child families, from providing each other exclusive family company, the parent/child relationship is extremely close. Parents and child come to know each other so well they can usually feel when something is going "wrong" for each other.

This heightened sensitivity can create pressures of emotional responsibility. As one only child described it: "When either parent was unhappy, I felt unhappy too, and believed it was my job to cheer them up. And when they got in an argument, I felt scared, and so to feel safe I tried to smooth things over between them. I just couldn't stand they're being sad or not getting along."

To help reduce this pressure, parents can tell their only child that he or she is not responsible for their feelings and that it's their job to get themselves feeling better when out of sorts or down. They can explain that occasional unhappiness is to be expected in life, is normal, and is okay.

And they can also explain that conflict in a marriage is not only normal, but essential, if parents are to address and resolve inevitable human differences that will arise between them. It is not the child's job to stop parental conflict or to work those differences out. Parental conflict doesn't mean divorce (as so many children today fear), it means parents are working to architect a marriage that can accept the human differences between them.

To reduce pressure of fixing parental unhappiness and conflict on the only child, parents need to make these separations of emotional responsibility very clear.

A second source of parent pressure on the only child comes from the mutual admiration society that is often created during the early years, parents and child each thinking the other is wonderful, giving each other very high approval ratings. From being so highly approved, both tend to have a very low tolerance for displeasing each other.

This low tolerance can lead to a tyranny of pleasing (pleasing each other at all costs) that creates a lot of pressure on the only child when he or she enters adolescence and lets the "bad child" out. In this case "bad" does not mean evil, immoral, or unlawful, but simply more difficult to parent -- typically becoming more negative, more resistant, and more opposed to restraint.

Delaying compliance, testing limits, arguing with rules, experimenting with the forbidden, all these common early adolescent traits cause parents to have to take unpopular (displeasing) stands with their beloved only child for his or her best interests against what he or she wants and likes. When the child expresses displeasure ("You've become so mean!") parents can feel hurt. And when they express displeasure and apply necessary correction, the child feels hurt because this means parents have been displeased.

Pulling away from and pushing against parents, both normal parts of adolescent growth, are scary acts for the only child because this means putting good standing in parental eyes at risk, courting disapproval from the two most important people in the child's world. This is why adolescence is an act of courage, particularly for the only child who must, to some degree, loosen extremely strong bonds of attachment to parents for the sake of the differentiation, individuality, and independence ultimately required for a healthy adulthood.

To reduce the pressure of necessary correction during adolescence, parents need to avoid expressions of criticism ("You used to be such a great child, what happened to you?"), and to avoid expressions of disappointment ("You've really let us down!") The first expression will only drive the "sin" of displeasing parents even deeper, inspiring guilt; and the second expression will only threaten loss of loving standing in parental eyes, inspiring fear.

So to confront and correct unacceptable behavior in their only child in adolescence while minimizing pressure on the child, parents need to use non-evaluative correction. "We disagree with the choice you have made. Here is why. And this is what we need to have happen in consequence."

A third source of parental pressure arises from the dedication of parents. Caring as much as they do, total parenting attention focused on the only child they will have, they tend to invest all they have to give. But people do not personally invest of themselves without some expectation of return, and parenting an only child tends to be a high investment/high return relationship. The more parents give to the child, the more they expect the child to give back, particularly in terms of the child's motivation and performance. "They don't say so, but because my parents work so hard for me I know I am expected to work equally hard for them to turn out well."

To reduce this pressure, parents can moderate their investment and with it their expectation of return. They can give freely without creating expectations of a comparable return. They can let the child know that he or she is not under some obligation to give stellar performance back to them in proportion to special care and support that they have given.

Pressures from the child on himself or herself

The only child peers with adults because parents are the only other family members in the home. As with any peer pressure, there is some felt need to conform to belong so the only child imitates parental ways to be accepted by these powerful people. Thus most only children are "adultized," becoming verbally and socially precious, talking early and learning to act grown up.

In this process of fitting in with parents, the only child often comes to consider himself or herself their equal, demanding equal consideration and say in family decisions. A byproduct of this sense of adult standing and entitlement is apparent in the way many only children are very comfortable speaking up to other adults and are not intimidated by adult authority.

Unhappily, this is where a significant self-imposed pressure problem begins for many only children. By giving themselves comparable family standing as parents ("I am their equal"), only children can then apply equal standards ("Since I am their equal, I should be able to perform equally well.")

But the child is a child, not an adult, and so these internal performance standards are exaggerated, unrealistic, and most important, unreachable. "I can't do it as well as you, what's the matter with me?" moans the only child, failing to measure up adult performance that is based on years of practice and informed by mature experience. To reduce this pressure, parents may respond: "Nothing is wrong with you, don't be so hard on yourself, you're just a child." But this is not what the only child wants to hear, feeling put down and assigned inferior standing in their company.

The motivation of many only children to do well is often rooted in the belief that they should be able to do as well as their parents. At worst, this tyranny of unrealistic standards can cause the only child to be intolerant of ordinary performance, unforgiving of mistakes, being extremely hard on himself or herself when it comes to matters of achievement.

To reduce this pressure, parents are usually well advised not to push their only child to strive harder, in school for example. He or she is already operating under more self-induced pressure than may be healthy or happy. Rather, they need to help the child take responsibility for these internal standards, to recognize that they are chosen not fixed (genetic), and to understand they can be changed and lowered if undue striving is driving the child into stress. The progressive signs of stress to watch for are constant fatigue (tired all the time), chronic pain (physical and emotional complaints), burn-out (loss of caring), or breakdown (physical or psychological loss of the capacity to normally function.)

Parents can explain to their only child about standards. "How you set your standards has a lot to do with how treat yourself. When you set standards that are excessively high, you can end up doing hurt to yourself, feeling pressured all the time, always worried by the fear of not measuring up. Your job is to select a reasonable and realistic set of standards that you can reach most of the time by making a full faith effort on your own behalf."

Copyright, Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2002, all rights reserved.
For permission to use, contact the author.
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