Parents who have one child can sometimes draw criticism due to the term called ‘only child syndrome.’ Whether or not to have more than one child is entirely up to a parent. It is a widely believed fallacy that a single child with no siblings is not loving and empathetic. They could develop anxiety disorders or become spoilt brats. In this post, we talk about ‘only child syndrome’ its signs. Read on.
Is Only Child Syndrome Real?
When we come across the term ‘only child syndrome’ or ‘a family with one child,’ we are often transported to China, known for its one-child policy, which was introduced way back in 1979 and is believed to be the origin of the one-child syndrome (1).
Multiple studies have been done on families with single children both in China and the West to understand the development of a child with and without siblings. Most of these studies state that compared to adults who grew up with siblings, those who grew up as single children showed differences in their social behaviors (2).
However, we must understand that the personality and behavior of only children and children with siblings are not dependent merely on the presence or absence of siblings. Multiple factors influence a child’s personality.
Though studies have explained social differences between single children and those with siblings, the stereotype that only children show signs of selfishness, jealousy, are lonely, or maladjusted is not conclusively proven (3).
Characteristics Of Only Child Syndrome
Some differences have been noticed in studies between children with and without siblings. Let’s have a look at a few of them. However, these characteristics may not hold for all single children (1).
1. Less social
Having a sibling opens one to the possibility of sharing and caring. The National Survey of Families and Households data showed that the adults who grew up without siblings had less social activities than those who had siblings during their growing up years. They also participated differently in sports and school-related activities (2). Being less social may also lead to difficulty in making friends.
However, this does not mean that single children do not share or are filled with loneliness. Since single children do not have siblings to share their life with during their formative years, they could become self-sufficient and less social too. While they may not be anti-social, they may have a smaller friend circle.
2. Lesser interaction with relatives
Siblings usually outlive parents and are present throughout one’s life. This makes them the longest relatives and close family to interact with in their entire life. The 2011 case studies on American adults indicated that compared to people with siblings, there is a chance that single children without relatives may not have this bond and tend to spend less time with relatives or interact with them (2).
Only children may turn out to be more ambitious, sometimes even more than a first-born with siblings. This has been attributed to the fact that single children get the complete attention of their parents, who are more likely to notice and praise their achievements, which could benefit them.
4. Self-reliant and adjusted
Single children tend to be self-adjusting when it comes to emotions and their parent’s undivided affection makes them emotionally stable. However, these characteristics may change over time as they grow into adults. They may experience occasional guilt over receiving such concentrated attention and potentially feel a sense of responsibility and sometimes even fear to fulfill their parents’ expectations. They might feel difficulty coping with the expectations. It’s important to recognize that these dynamics can evolve over time and vary from person to person, as individuals navigate their own unique emotional journeys and relationships with their parents.
Children without siblings can be more independent and tend to have more confidence than those with siblings. This arises from their time spent in isolation in their growing-up years. They have learned how to entertain themselves and are comfortable being alone.
6. Higher IQ
Single children may have a higher IQ than those with siblings. It could be because they spent more time learning and engaging in extracurricular activities than socializing.
7. Difficult to manage conflict
A 2002 study stated that only children were less likely to be liked by their classmates and had a high chance of being victimized and aggressive in their peer group. This leaves them with insecurity. This throws some light on how having siblings at home can help to manage a conflict better (4).
8. Less agreeable personalities
Though single children are creative, well-rounded, and intelligent, they tend to score low on agreeable personality traits. A 2011 study conducted in China stated that people who grew up in single-children families tend to be more narcissistic than those with siblings (5).
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are the disadvantages of being an only child?
Some disadvantages of being an only child are that they cannot share their feelings on a daily basis which can sometimes lead to occasional bouts of depression. Some other disadvantages of being an only child are that they may face difficulty adjusting to the extra parental pressure placed on them to excel in academics and extracurricular activities. They may be under extra parental pressure to perform well in academics and extracurricular activities. In addition, they may also have to find ways to play, entertain, and self-motivate themselves without a sibling.
2. Are parents of only children happier?
Although there is not much research to confirm this statement, one study demonstrated that a mother’s mental health might improve after her first child’s birth. However, a second child’s birth could impact a father’s psychological well-being (6)
3. How might the parent-child relationship differ for an only child compared to a child with siblings?
Parents of an only child can devote more individual attention and resources to that child. They may have more time and energy to invest in their child’s needs, education, and activities. On the other hand, parents with multiple children may need to divide their attention and resources, which can lead to less one-on-one time with each child. For an only child, their relationship with their parents may be more intense and centered around the parent’s expectations, as no other siblings can share that focus. Children with siblings, on the other hand, might experience a wider range of relationships, including sibling rivalry, cooperation, and shared experiences.
4. Are there any cultural or societal factors that may influence the perception of only-child syndrome?
Some societies strongly prefer larger families, where having multiple children is seen as desirable and advantageous. The idea that only children might suffer from certain disadvantages or developmental issues can gain traction in such societies. In societies where sibling relationships are highly valued and play a significant role in socialization, there may be a tendency to view only children as lacking certain social skills or experiences from growing up with siblings. This perception can contribute to the notion of only-child syndrome.
5. How does birth order, such as being the firstborn, influence the experience of only child syndrome?
Firstborns and only children may share some similarities, as both positions involve being the sole focus of parental attention for a significant period. The firstborns often receive much attention and responsibility from their parents, leading to higher expectations and pressure to succeed. On the other hand, only children grow up without the experience of having siblings. They may have a closer relationship with their parents, as they do not have to compete for attention or resources.
6. Can the experience of only child syndrome vary depending on factors such as gender or parental involvement?
Gender can influence socialization experiences and expectations within a family. For example, societal norms may place different expectations on boys and girls, affecting their interactions and relationships within the family and beyond. These gender-specific expectations and experiences can shape an only child’s development, but it’s important to remember that individual personality and temperament also play significant roles. Children who receive consistent emotional support, guidance, and opportunities for social interaction tend to have healthier socioemotional development. Parents who actively engage with their children, provide opportunities for peer socialization, and promote independence and self-confidence.
7. How might the parenting style of parents with only children differ from those with multiple children?
Parents with only one child can often devote more attention and focus to that child since they don’t have to divide their time and energy among multiple children. This can lead to a closer parent-child bond and a higher level of involvement in the child’s life. Parents with multiple children often encourage independence and self-reliance earlier due to the need to manage various responsibilities. In contrast, parents with only children may be more likely to engage in activities or tasks that the child could do independently, inadvertently fostering a greater dependence on the parents.
Having a single child is a personal choice. Planning another child to ensure that your child doesn’t get spoilt is incorrect. Remember, babies, toddlers, and young children throw tantrums and often exhibit behavioral problems, but that doesn’t always indicate that the child is suffering from the only child syndrome. Yes, having a sibling helps shape one’s behavior. However, it isn’t the only factor that decides how a child will behave. Positive parenting practices, social experiences, and guidance at school are a few additional factors that impact a child’s behavior.
Infographic: Common Myths About An Only Child
Being an only child or a parent to an only child, you may have heard people saying, “It must get lonely for you” or “Oh! You must have spoiled him/her a lot.”
These common misconceptions about an only child need to be debunked. So check this infographic out to learn the common stereotypes associated with an only child and save it to give the people a fact check.
- Studies showed behavioral differences between children who grew up with siblings and those raised as single children.
- However, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that single children are loners, self-centered, or have adjustment problems.
- Being ambitious, less interactive with relatives, and having a higher IQ are a few characteristics of only child syndrome.
- M Potts China’s One-Child Policy 2006;
- K Trent, G D. Spitze, Growing up without siblings and adult sociability responsibilities, 2012;
- T Falbo, The only child: A review, Journal of Individual Psychology; 1977;
- K M. Kitzmann et al.; Are Only Children Missing Out? Comparison of the Peer-Related Social Competence of Only Children and Siblings, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships;
- H Cai, V S. Y. Kwan, C Sedikides, A Sociocultural Approach to Narcissism: The Case of Modern China, European Journal of Personality;
- Leah Ruppanner et al. (2018); Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood Time Pressure and Mental Health.