Is Only-Child Syndrome Really A Thing? Experts Weigh In
There are a lot of stereotypes that come with being an only child. It would be easy to assume that children who grow up without siblings might be more self-centered—but is that really the case? To find out, we asked experts about what to expect from only children, plus what these people can do to overcome any challenges that may arise from growing up solo.
The birth order theory.
The Adlerian Overview of Birth Order Characteristics was first developed in the 1960s by psychotherapist Alfred Adler, M.D., to outline the characteristics of twins, only children, and oldest, middle, and youngest children. Only children tend to fall more into the "firstborn" camp of Adler's theory:
- Firstborns: Firstborns are thought of as responsible, reliable, cautious, achievement-oriented leaders and problem solvers. Adler's theory suggests that because firstborns tend to get the most attention from parents, a lot is expected of them, resulting in a deep sense of responsibility.
- Middle children: You may have heard of "middle child syndrome," believed to be caused by a lack of attention from parents. While not always accurate, middle children can feel ignored and lack confidence and, according to Adler's theory, have trouble sticking up for themselves or finding their place or role.
- The youngest child: Being the youngest is thought to result in a somewhat coddled person. Adler's theory suggests the babies of the family are most likely to be spoiled, which can lead to self-centeredness.
While interesting to consider, the Adlerian Overview should be taken with a grain of salt, as it hasn't been fully backed by modern research. Licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, tells mbg that only children don't necessarily have to have different traits than any other child.
5 characteristics of an only child.
While everyone's different, these are some traits commonly associated with only children:
As psychologist and author of The Book of Sacred Baths Paulette Sherman, Ph.D., tells mbg, only children are often thought of as independent. Beurkens echoes this point. After all, there isn't another child in the house for them to lean on.
As they get older, Sherman notes, this independence can also translate into a need for more space than others have.
Beurkens and Sherman both note that only children can be high achievers who put a lot of weight on their accomplishments and victories. Since parents are able to invest their attention in solely them, rather than multiple siblings, only children (like oldest children) can have more expectations placed on them and feel a greater need to succeed.
Similar to being achievement-oriented, Sherman notes only children are often ambitious, and Beurkens notes the research backs this up. Parents often tell their children they can do anything and make any dream come true. Only children can really take that message to heart.
Sometimes, but not always, only children may have trouble sharing or compromising, according to Sherman.
However, as Beurkens adds, while they may "struggle with some adjustment issues when they get old enough to enter school and engage with peers, that mostly depends on the opportunities they've had as younger children to be around other kids." She adds that research hasn't shown the self-absorbed only-child stereotype to be true.
Close with family
And lastly, Beurkens and Sherman note that being an only child can make one particularly close to one's parents. "They tend to have closer relationships with their parents during childhood and in adulthood," Beurkens explains.
Where these traits come from.
There's no question that having siblings (or not) will directly affect a child through the course of their early years and beyond. But as Beurkens notes, "Research has not consistently shown1 that 'onlies' are any worse off than kids who grow up with siblings."
Yes, they do tend to get more attention from their parents than those with one, two, or more siblings. However, "Research shows this has primarily positive benefits for their cognitive, social, and emotional development2," Beurkens says.
Ultimately, the lasting impacts of being an only child likely come from "being alone a lot, spending lots of time with parents, feeling pressure to succeed, having parents' attention all the time, and getting most of their needs and desires fulfilled," Sherman explains.
None of those things are negative, necessarily—unless the only child doesn't have many opportunities to socialize with people outside their family and, specifically, with other children.
"They may have some difficulties initially when engaging in school, sports, social activities [...] but this isn't an across-the-board problem, and over time these kids catch up with their skills and comfort level in this arena," Beurkens adds.
Again, it's important to note that everyone is different, and just because someone is an only child doesn't necessarily mean they're going to display certain stereotypes.
It ultimately comes down to the individual, how much they've matured, and the nuances of their childhood. "A lot of their behavior as adults depends on the type of relationship they had with their parents3 as a child, which is true for any person, whether or not they're an only child," Beurkens explains, adding, "the concept of 'only-child syndrome' has largely been debunked in the research.
Thriving as an only child.
If you're an adult and worry you're exhibiting some of the negative aspects of being an only child, awareness is one of the best things you can cultivate. Being aware of tendencies like overachieving (which can lead to burnout) or attention-seeking is the first hurdle to overcoming them.
For parents, it's very important to allow your only child to get plenty of socialization. "Teach them to share and compromise, and encourage them to play with other children and on teams," Sherman says.
As Beurkens notes, "Make sure they have opportunities to be around people outside the family unit, specifically other kids as they go through their early childhood years and beyond."
With only one kid to give attention to, parents also want to be mindful not to overdo it with coddling, according to Beurkens, to help them develop their own resilience and problem-solving skills. "Let your child make decisions alone, and don't pressure them to overachieve," Sherman adds.
And if you're dating an only child, Sherman says it's important to realize they may need their space and independence due to their family dynamic. "They may need to learn to compromise and to share. They also may crave attention and may not understand when you are giving other relationships attention instead of them," she says.
The bottom line.
Just because someone is an only child doesn't mean their personality is set in stone. Every family is different, even if there is only one child in the picture. At the end of the day, how someone grows into themselves will be unique to them. With that being said, if you believe being an only child negatively affected you in some way, it's never too late to brush off old habits.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.