It's obvious to say, but important to remember, that parents and an only child grow extremely close emotionally. Their bonding is rooted in spending so much time together, keeping each other exclusive social company at home, caring so much for each other, and coming to know each other so intimately.
Typically, their relationship is emotionally sensitized — parent and child being able to tell, without words, how the other is feeling. It is difficult to mask true feelings from each other.
Feeling Tied to Each Other
Difficulty with such closeness arises when some degree of emotional enmeshment occurs, when parents and child tie their own feelings to the well-being of each other. Having thoughts like the ones below is often a sign of emotional enmeshment.
“I feel okay if you feel okay.”
“If you don't feel okay, then I don't feel okay.”
“If you don't feel okay, then I need to help you feel okay.”
“If I am unable to help you feel okay, then I won't feel okay.”
Emotional enmeshment comes at the expense of emotional independence that allows one person to feel bad without the other automatically feeling bad in response, obliged to “fix” the unhappy other so both can feel okay.
How Discipline Reinforces Attachment
Since some degree of emotional enmeshment is very common between parents and an only child, both instructional and corrective discipline can increase the pressure on this intense attachment. Instructional discipline can cause the child to believe that learning to act how parents value (school achievement, for example) will cause parents to feel good about the child and themselves.
So when parents look at A's on a report card and declare, “We must be doing something right!” the child links her personal performance to her parents' well-being. “How I do determines how my parents feel.” Better for parents to have simply said, “Congratulations for how well you've done!” and express satisfaction for the child, rather than with themselves.
Correctional discipline can be hard for both you and your child to deal with, making you both unhappy with yourselves and for each other. A parent may say, “It hurts me to give correction because I know it hurts my child.” The child may say, “It hurts being corrected because that means I have failed to please my parents and now they are unhappy because of me.” When disciplining your only child, try to get adequate emotional separation in the relationship by objectively dealing with the offense: “This is what happened that we don't want to have happen again.”
Keeping the Pressure Off
To keep possible emotional enmeshment from unduly pressuring the delivery of discipline, there are some guidelines you can follow.
Don't praise your child by attaching your good feelings about yourself to his or her good behavior. Statements such as “We're proud of you” or “You make us feel so proud” may increase pressure on the child to believe, “How well or badly I do determines how well or badly my parents feel about themselves.” Better simply to say, “Good for you!”
Don't blame your child for “making” you unhappy, angry, disappointed, or otherwise upset by his or her misbehavior. Your child is responsible only for her actions. Your emotional response is your responsibility, not your child's.
Never use sensitive knowledge confided by the child against him when you discipline. If you do, you will betray the heightened intimacy and trust that usually exists between an only child and his parents.
Don't deny unhappy feelings or tensions connected with discipline of your only child who is too sensitive not to sense something is “wrong” and will only imagine the worst.
End all corrective discipline, after the child experiences the consequence, with reconciliation of feelings and reaffirmation of your love.