Divorce may be particularly difficult for only children. This is true for children without any siblings as well as virtual only children, those who are separated by seven or more years from their closest sibling. Children with special-needs siblings can also feel like only children, particularly if the sibling is unable to engage interpersonally.
Only children are often high-achieving in school and extracurriculars, having had the benefit of all of their parents’ focus and resources. These kids usually feel that they are the most important thing in their parents’ lives, so it is unlikely that you will have to worry about your only child feeling lost in the shuffle and ignored during or after your divorce. This is a positive, but with this positive can come some negatives.
Only children generally feel a great sense of pressure to be “good” and to make their parents proud and happy. They have no siblings with whom to split this burden. Therefore, it is likely that your child is at risk of feeling that you and your co-parent are fighting over her attention, and that she is caught in the middle. This can make an only child feel highly conflicted and anxious, especially since these kids are typically more sensitive and conflict averse than children with siblings, due to a lack of exposure to sibling squabbling while growing up.
Only children are also at risk of feeling highly isolated after a divorce. They have no siblings with whom to discuss the divorce or associated life changes, and if they have to change neighborhoods or schools, it may be harder for a lone child to approach new potential friends or neighborhood kids than it would be for a pair or trio of siblings to do so. In new schools, siblings will be in different classes, but they still know that their sibling is a “new kid” too, which can be comforting. In contrast, only children often feel exposed and alone in social situations, particularly those that are new or intimidating.
Only children are at particular risk of becoming a parent’s confidante. They are often verbally advanced and considered “precocious,” because they spend a lot of one-on-one time with adults while growing up. This can make a parent incorrectly assume that only children are able to hear and deal with adult feelings, and even that these children can offer valuable advice. A child should never be put in the position of a “friend” or a confidante to a troubled parent. This is unfair and does not respect the child’s need for boundaries.
When parenting an only child post-divorce, try to keep multiple points in mind, many of which apply to only children in non-divorced homes as well. First, make sure your child spends lots of time with other children outside of school. As a single parent, everyone will advise you to spend quality time with your child, and this is certainly essential. But once your child turns three or four, a parent is no substitute for other children, and your child will still long for peer interaction. Therefore, at least once during the week and once on the weekend, your child should be interacting with other kids at activities or playdates. Offer to bring friends along to special parent-child activities too. One child and one parent does not usually make for a fun time at an amusement park, a magic show, a petting zoo, or a circus. Your child may be too self-conscious with just you there to enjoy the experience fully. It does not take away from your quality time with your child to include a friend; in fact, it will likely enhance the fun.
Pets can also be important “friends” for the only child of divorce. Often kids consider the pet to be a best friend and constant companion, and even a surrogate sibling. The best choice is a pet that can also serve as a conversation starter with other kids, like a friendly dog that can be walked. This pet could even move between both parents’ homes with your child.
Remember not to treat your only child as a confidante. Many only children are verbally advanced, from being around adults giving them undivided attention and talking to them on a more adult level. Don’t mistake this verbal precocity for a child being more mature than she really is. Don’t confide in your child about anything adult or divorce-related.
Lastly, make sure your only child knows you love her for who she is. Kids with siblings understand that their parents value different things about each child, and see that their parents respond appreciatively to their sense of humor, and to their sister’s kindness, and to their brother’s adventurousness. An only child knows that you love her, but she is the only game in town, so it may seem like you “have to” love her. This is exacerbated by divorce, because from the child’s perspective, you really have nobody else to love now at all. Make sure you say you love your child’s own specific qualities and that you’re happy that you ended up with exactly the child that she is.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Rodman’s new book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family, available now. It was originally published on Dr. Psych Mom here. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
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