Growing Up As An Only Child – an Interview with Bernice Sorensen

What impact can growing up as an only child have?

Bernice Sorensen is one of the foremost experts on issues pertaining to only children on personal, cultural, and social levels. She has researched how the only child develops, and the lasting effects that being an only child can have in adulthood. She is also the collector and curator of only child stories, many of which are available on her website.

Bernice Sorensen Interview

How did you start out in counselling & psychotherapy?

There were both personal and professional reasons for choosing to go into counselling and then psychotherapy.

Having begun my professional life as a teacher, at age 25, I was drawn towards counselling to understand how children, who had successfully entered into the grammar school system, did not always succeed. My own experience of failing the 11+ had left me with a sense of inadequacy about schoolwork; somewhat overcome by going to university. Similarly I was finding that adolescents with difficult home backgrounds and low self-esteem were also failing to fulfil their potential. This made me curious to find ways of helping students to achieve.

There was also a part of me that found the whole idea of therapy both interesting and challenging, so I sought therapy myself even though in the 70s it was not a necessary part of the training.

As a therapist you have a great deal of experience working with young people. What has drawn you to this area of interest?

Well, the first twenty years of my therapy career was primarily with young people and at this time I wrote the book Counselling for Young People with a colleague. I worked mainly in the field of education and youth work with some private practice, but later I have mostly diversified, working in the NHS and for EAP’s.

I love working with young people and still enjoy that challenge of making a connection and supporting them through difficult times.

In 2000 you founded the website OnlyChild.org.uk to collect the many varied stories and experiences of adults who have grown up an only child. What are some of your favourite stories that have been posted on the site?

For me every story is unique and so I find it impossible to have ‘favourites’. In fact some are very harrowing, others sad, and some joyous. I suppose what I appreciate the most is having such a variety of stories, but with similar themes that often expose the only child traits that make me feel that alongside others we do belong to a family and are not alone!

Growing up as an only child can have a lasting impact on us, in a personal, social and cultural context.

My favourite interviews are the ones I did for my book, especially the stories from Taiwan and China. I enjoy having a multicultural approach as different types of stereotypes emerge that can be similar and different to the British or Amercian ones. I have been interviewed on South Korean radio that has a large percentage of only children, and which makes it particularly hard for parents when a disaster occurs to school-aged children.

Whilst I do receive stories from all around the world, there tends to be a predominance of stories from the US. I think that is in part due to the ways the US has promoted a very positive image of the only child experience, which my research definitely challenges.

What motivated you to do research on only child adults?

As an only child myself, married to an only child, I had noticed over the years that only children, and particularly only child clients, often viewed the world in somewhat different ways to people with siblings.

Many of my friends are onlies and it was here in Brighton that I decided, whilst talking to a fellow therapist friend and colleague, that it would be really interesting to do research on the experiences of growing up as an only child and the effect that might have on us as people and the way we interact with others.

I think it is very important that people who work in an interpersonal context, such as therapists, have some understanding of the issues around growing up without siblings. This includes how that lack of a sibling impacts on an only child’s emotional, social and psychological development, not just as children but throughout their life span.

The website is a wonderfully unique resource which I know formed the basis for your Doctoral Research and the resulting book called The Only Child Experience and Adulthood. What was your most surprising discovery about the only child experience that came from your research?

Two things come immediately to mind.

The first is that people assume the experience of the only child is something that primarily belongs to childhood but in fact my interviews with only child adults showed that the experience demonstrated that it is something which impacts through the rest of your life. If anything it becomes greater as you get older in the way you see the world and interact with it.

The second is the aspect of the only child stereotype, which initially I thought was just an interesting window into the experience, but in fact was far more significant on a personal, social and cultural level than I had first envisaged, and in fact led my research to explore the experience from those three angles.

What got you interested in delivering training?

Training grew naturally from my teaching experience. I enjoy training adults, which I have been doing for the past 40 years. Adults can be more challenging than adolescents, but of course stimulating too!

If you weren’t a therapist, what would you be and why?

I really do not know. When I was younger I thought I would enjoy being part of a large organisation, but as time went on this became less attractive.

Being self-employed does really give you an opportunity to build a business and I think that is part of what I have enjoyed doing during the last forty years, alongside my passion for therapy, supervision and, more latterly, research. However the advantage of therapy, once you get to retirement age, is that you can continue to offer this, as much or as little as you wish, which for me is a big plus.

Where can people hear more from you? (eg, your own Blog, Website, Twitter, Email?)

My website blog is something I try and do on a regular basis, and offer people an opportunity to publish any research they are carrying out or ask for volunteers. It also has the stories people offer about their own experience as only children and adult onlies, which I use as a basis for some of the posts I write.

I am always happy to receive emails concerning my research and can be reached on bernicesorensen@gmail.com.

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