How Being An Only Child Could Affect Your Attachment Style

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Happy Child Smiling Up At Mother

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The only-child stereotype generally suggests that kids without siblings are spoiled and receive unconditional attention from their parents. That's not always accurate, but it is true that how a child is raised can affect their behaviors as an adult—including their approach to relationships, aka their attachment style.

So we asked the experts: Does being an only child lead to a consistent attachment style, or is there more to it than that? 

The effects of being an only child.

Before digging into the details, it's important to understand exactly what attachment styles signify. The theory, developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, says a person's approach to relationships is developed in early childhood and mirrors the relationships we had with our earliest caregivers. There are four types of attachment style: avoidant, anxious, fearful-avoidant, and secure attachment.

Simply being an only child isn't enough to shape an attachment style. "The truth is, to a large degree, it really depends on the kind of parenting you have, more than the number of siblings you have or don't have," psychotherapist Ken Page, LCSW, tells mbg. In fact, depending on the family, the outcomes can be pretty oppositional.

"Some of the stereotypes about only children are that they tend to be self-involved, unskilled at sharing, independent, and yet in some ways extremely dependent," Page says. "Some research shows that only children are more likely to get divorced, while other research shows that only children get married at around the same time as children with siblings and will stay married just as long," he adds.

Clearly, there's no straightforward answer. Depending on the type of parenting an only child receives, it's likely for their attachment style to swing one of two ways.

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Secure attachment. 

In some cases, only children will receive extra focus and attention from their parents, Page says. Even if the parents are working, the level of attention they're able to provide to a single child is higher than if they were dividing it among many siblings. 

"That kind of mirroring can enhance creativity, as well as a sense of being connected and seen," he says, "assuming that the parent or parents are able to provide that quality of attention in a basically consistent fashion."  

In this situation where a child feels seen, heard, and supported by their parent, they will likely develop a secure attachment style. Someone with a secure attachment style is able to form healthy, trusting relationships with others as an adult and generally feel secure in relationships.

Anxious attachment. 

Alternatively, the only child may develop an anxious attachment style, which is characterized by a deep fear of abandonment. 

"Only children sometimes develop an overly needy or clingy relationship with their parent(s), which can then show up in relationships later on," holistic child and family psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, says. 

When a person grew up with a parent or parents who were constantly attuned to their needs, they can develop unrealistic expectations in romantic relationships. If their early romantic relationships don't play out the same way as their relationship with their parents, it may cause them to become anxious in their relationships, becoming needy, jealous, or anxious when they don't immediately hear back from their partner.

The bottom line.

One only child may have received an entirely different pattern of care than another only child, and both may have different attachment styles as a result. Other factors—such as how available or unavailable your parents are—may have a more significant effect on attachment style than only-child status alone.

"The big question, even larger than birth order or being an only child, is the security of connection, the sense of being loved and seen, the sense of support and encouragement, healthy expectations, and the parents' overall attitudes about love, authenticity, caring, generosity, and responsibility," Page says. 

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