In Syndromes & Disorders

Understanding Only Child Syndrome

Who knew that being an only child, which is something a child has absolutely no control over, could label this child a problem for society? The only child syndrome is a label given to people who do not have any siblings, or who were raised without any siblings. Some of the claimed only child syndrome characteristics include selfishness, an inability to share and difficulty making friends.


These claims are interesting since these characteristics are found in many other people who have one, two or more siblings. Many people now believe this is just a myth. So, where did it come from?

According to an excerpt from The New York Times, researchers at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts decided to study school-aged children in the late 19th Century. The researchers asked teachers to recall some of their students that were either peculiar or exceptional. The results included students such as those who were exceptionally strong, ugly, fearful, cruel and generous. When researchers examined that data, they found that many of these peculiar and exceptional students were only children.

As a result, researchers concluded that only children were much more difficult to raise than ones living in multi-children homes. According to G. Stanley Hall, who was a proclaimed child expert and who reviewed the studies, being an only child was a disease.


What Is Only Child Syndrome?

Hall’s views went unchallenged for years and as a result being an only child brought with it many stereotypes for behaviour and expectations. Teachers, students and often employers often expect only children to be selfish, strange, lonely or unhappy. Others characterize only children as bossy, self-absorbed, aggressive and poorly adjusted.

Many only children are given the label as a spoiled brat before they have a chance to show who they really are. Modern research does not support these stereotypes.

According to the Only Child Experience and Research web site, based in the United Kingdom, a syndrome is a collection of psychological disorders that leads to a certain pattern of behaviour. People assume that being an only child is a syndrome, and the characteristics that are linked to it apply more frequently in only children, without any regard to individual personalities. It is similar to saying that all redheads are hot-tempered – another example of an untrue stereotypes.

In the 1970’s, Toni Falbo, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, examined all the studies done on only children since the 1920’s. Falbo concluded that only children were highly motivated and personally adjusted. Otherwise, only children were just like children who had siblings.


Only Child Syndrome Psychology

Psychology Today provides a look into how being an only child forms behaviour patterns in adolescents. These include:

  • A family in which parents are trying to do their best with the child. This is there one and only chance and they do not want to make mistakes or fail to raise a healthy, happy, well-adjusted child. In return, the child wants to please their parents and will live with this obligation. They will often will succeed academically and many times at the expense of a social life with the sole reason for pleasing their parents.
  • Parents of only children spend all their time, money and resources on raising this child. They provide the best of everything and in response; the only child wants to be the best for their parents. They will also use best manners and behaviour in an effort to please their parents.
  • Since only children spend the majority of their time interacting with their parents, they mature faster. Also, only children have a much easier time conversing with adults since they are used to this scenario.

As a result of these circumstances and all the energy and love going to the only child, they typically grow up with a healthy self-esteem. Their parents think the best of them, so they feel good about themselves.

A teenage only child typically develops an early sense of responsibility and independence. They don’t need to depend on anyone to help them – they can do things for themselves. This again, leads to a self-confidence that helps them succeed.

A teenage only child can often exhibit the following:

  • Feel judgment from society, since parents are always watching.
  • Need privacy, since an only child is comfortable spending time alone.
  • Are sensitive to disapproval, since they do not like to let down anyone.
  • Enjoy social attention.
  • A responsible personality.
  • Uncomfortable with conflict since not learning how to fight with others.
  • A strong sense of achievement and success.
  • A desire to obey the rules and do what is right.
  • A reluctance to give in to peer pressure.


Little Emperors

China’s one-child policy has given the nation a specific insight into the effect of one-child families. Does this country worry about only child syndrome symptoms affecting its economy? According to the book The Geography of Contemporary China: The Impact of Deng Xiaoping’s Decade, China uses the term “little emperors” to describe the personalities of these only children.

Not many studies have researched the overall results of a one-child society, but the few that have show these children to be superior in verbal skills and intellectually, but lacking in personalities and social behaviour.


Only Child Syndrome Depression

Being an only child, much like being a child within a larger family, can have lasting results on how one navigates life. It is difficult to go through life without the support of siblings. Friends are wonderful, but family “has” to be there. A friend can opt out. An only child also feels tremendous pressure to succeed, and if they don’t they may feel depressed because they let down their parents.

This unmentioned anxiety could weigh heavily on an only child, particularly a female child. Many times girls turn inward to mask their feelings, which can result in depression.

MedIndia studied the Only Child Syndrome when they surveyed adult only children between the ages of 18 and 45. The results included responses such as:


  • Anxiety over caring for aging parents. Only children have no one to share the burden with.
  • Bitterness over having to make difficult life choices based on their only child status. This can include how far to live from parents, how many children to have, even choice of life partners to avoid marrying an only child.
  • A feeling of being smothered by their parent’s overwhelming love and attention.
  • Experiencing a lot of repressed anger, and not being able to express it for fear of upsetting or hurting parents.
  • Missing something unknown. Only children can’t miss having a sibling because they’ve never had one, yet they can miss the idea of a brother or sister.
  • Having more than one child to avoid being a only-child family themselves.


Only Child Syndrome in Relationships

Contrary to the stereotypes, it is not difficult for an only child to have a relationship. Many only children take their eagerness to please and transfer it to their mate. This can create a wonderful partnership, if the spouse provides support and love in return.

Small concerns can arise in a relationship, but not out of spite from the only child; it is the only way they know. These can include:

  • Wanting alone time.
  • Difficulty making joint decisions.
  • Experiencing stress if they feel they aren’t succeeding.
  • Still relying on parents.
  • Strong independence.
  • A personal agenda for life and goals.
  • Inability to ask for help.

These are not bad characteristics, but can cause friction with the wrong partners. However, in the hands of someone who loves and appreciates an only child and their “syndrome”, they can flourish and reach their goals standing next to the one who loves them.


Are you an only child, or in a relationship with someone who was raised as an only child. We’d love to hear about your views, experiences and opinions. Please join the conversation below in the comments section.

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