Stereotypes associated with only children–or “onlies” as they may be called–continue to thrive, even as the percentage of only children continues to climb.1While the stigma of being an only child, or experiencing “onliness,” may decrease with time, only children continue to be labeled as selfish, lonely, and unable to relate to their peers, based solely on what some may call a “syndrome.”
What Is Only Child Syndrome?
Although the term syndrome suggests that there is a medical or psychological diagnosis of only child syndrome, this is not the case–nor is there a single, accepted clinical definition for it. Whether a person is an “only” or one of multiple siblings, there are often characteristic traits and tendencies that are connected to how they function within their family and other social, academic, or professional settings.
We learn a lot about relationships during our earliest years–our relationships with our families can set the stage for all later relationships from childhood into adulthood. But for only children, people often assume that the absence of siblings can be detrimental to a child’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. Onlies are often labeled as being lonely, unable to form friendships, unwilling to share with others, self-centered, less empathetic, and more anxious than those with siblings.
History of Only Child Syndrome
The concept of Only Child Syndrome has been around for over a century, and gained traction through the work of prominent early psychologists. G. Stanley Hall described the status of being an only child as a “disease in itself.” Freud suggested that only children would struggle with their sexual identities due, in part, to the absence of siblings and the rivalry that plays out between siblings. Furthermore, Alfred Adler suggested that because only children receive the full attention of their parents, they would grow up spoiled and less interested in the company of their peers, thus becoming more interested in relating to adults.
During the period in which these attributions were being made, families tended to be much larger than they are in contemporary times. Therefore, the anomaly of the single-child household may have fostered beliefs that these children were categorically different from children with siblings in the home.
6 Characteristics of Only Children
While the status of being an only child rightfully suggests that this child receives the full attention of their parents or caregivers, this does not guarantee that the child will grow into a selfish or lonely adult.2 However, confirmation bias–the tendency to see what we want to see–often gives rise to only children playing out the stereotypical behaviors associated with their status.
Common characteristics of only children include:
It is assumed that, because there are no siblings in the home, only children are lonely or feel isolated. While this may be true, only children do have the full attention of their parents. Onlies will engage with others, primarily adults. Thus, their preference for adult companionship may be an artifact of this circumstance. However, preferring the company of adults over children shouldn’t be interpreted as loneliness.
Parents and extended family members may tend to overindulge an only child, and this may be interpreted as being spoiled. In addition, because only children may not have to share resources–including material resources and their parents’ attention–with siblings, they may have less experience in sharing with others. This may lead to people making unfounded assumptions that the only child is spoiled and selfish.
3. High Sense of Independence
In families with multiple children, much of life is experienced as a “group activity.” There can be a sense of camaraderie among siblings, and they may work together to wear their parents down or get their way. Onlies, however, have to go it alone in most cases, which may foster a strong sense of independence as they navigate family life. In addition, if high expectations are placed on an only child, and they fail to meet parental expectations and are harshly punished, hyper independence may be their chosen coping mechanism.
4. Poor Social Skills
Because there are no age-mate peers in the home, only children may have fewer opportunities to engage in casual, everyday “give and take” social interactions than other children. With adult-time as their primary social outlet, they may have a more challenging time relating to other children at first. They may seem awkward with peers, but highly mature in their ability to engage with adults.
5. High Achievers
Because all of a parent’s hopes may be pinned on their only child, a child may feel pressure to attain levels of high achievement in academics, extracurricular activities, and future careers. In addition, without the presence of competitors for parents’ resources, they may also be afforded greater opportunities to reach their goals.
6. Highly Sensitive to Criticism
It has been suggested that because only children do not have consistent interaction with other children, they do not learn how to manage negative feedback such as childhood name calling or teasing. Thus, only children are assumed to be super sensitive and emotionally wounded by constructive feedback, even as adults.
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What Does Research Say About Only Child Syndrome?
Current research refutes the popular belief that only children are negatively affected by their “onliness” status. Toni Falbo, one of the most prolific researchers in the area of only children, states that only children are pretty much the same as those with siblings, in terms of personality, temperament, and social skills.
However, more recent findings suggest that only children are more likely to be obese and have higher BMIs.3 This may be because only children don’t have the same opportunities for engaged, active play with siblings. Therefore, they tend to be more sedentary in their leisure activities, resulting in enduring bad habits. Onlies’ IQ scores and academic performance may be higher than children from multi-sibling homes, but these differences appeared to decrease as children grew up.
Other Factors that Affect the Upbringing of Only Children
It’s important to realize that it’s not just nature, but also nurture, that significantly shapes the behavior and dispositions of only children.
Factors that influence the personalities of only children include:
- Parenting styles: Parents tend to have more anxiety and work harder to get it right with their firstborn. When the firstborn remains the “only,” parents may continue to “over parent” their child. This can result in high expectations being placed on the child. and potentially persistent over anxiousness about the child’s wellbeing.
- Environment: With no other children in the home vying for their parents’ attention, only children may well seem a little spoiled by the standards of multi-child households. Without any sibling playmates, only children may also engage in more solitary pursuits or feel more comfortable with adults even as children.
- Cultural background: In cultures where a great deal of emphasis is placed on large families and creating family legacies, only children may receive special treatment. The need to ensure that the next generation of a family thrives, extra coddling and material resources may be showered on the only child.
- Gender: Gender socialization begins prior to birth in many families. If a particular gender was preferred by the parents, and the child identifies as that gender, the only child may hold a special rank in the family hierarchy, such as the “little prince” or “little princess.”
- Genetic makeup: Some children, regardless of birth order–whether only, first, middle, or youngest–may be more extroverted or more introverted than other children. They may be more sociable or more independent than others. These preferences are likely to be more evident as the child matures and feels increasingly comfortable in their individual identity, separate from their families.
When to Seek Professional Help
It’s not unusual for adults who are coping with emotional or psychological stressors to try and find the root cause of their struggles. Oftentimes, we want to blame our parents or caregivers for the problems we face in adulthood. If you find yourself feeling that your status as an only child has contributed to your distress, it might be useful to seek professional help from a counselor or therapist. Doing so can help you find ways to focus on the present and address the challenges you are facing in the here-and-now.
Therapy options to consider include:
- Family therapy: This provides a space where all members of a family can actively participate and share their own perspectives and experiences, both parents and the child.
- Structural family therapy: In this form of family therapy, the focus is on boundaries between family members. It can be especially helpful if an only child is raised in such a way that they are enmeshed with their parents and struggling to individuate.
- Play therapy: Play therapy can be helpful for children who are unable to verbalize their complicated feelings. It allows a child to communicate through the language of play.
- Group therapy: Childhood patterns play out in adulthood. In group therapy, adults are able to explore their behaviors, practice new responses, and get feedback from other group members as they work towards change.
While only children may get a bum rap from individuals who have siblings, it’s important to remember that a child’s birth order does not define their adult identity. Each of the negative characteristics especially attributed to only children also show up in individuals from multi-child households. Don’t let the “only child” label be an excuse for not addressing your areas for growth.