Is Only Child Syndrome Real?

"Only child syndrome" is the belief that only children are spoiled, bossy, and antisocial— but this stigma isn't actually true. Find out how an only child's personality is formed, and learn tips for parenting a kid without siblings.

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If you're currently planning a family, or considering adding to one, you may have heard of something called "only child syndrome," which is the idea that children from single-child families tend to develop negative personality characteristics such as being bossy, spoiled, and antisocial. But you can rest assured that is pretty much a myth. No reliable, current research shows any evidence of this being a universal truth among only child kids. And that's good news since single-child families have been rising since the 1970s.

Single-child families are experiencing tremendous growth, up from 10 million in 1972 to about 14.4 million in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What's the reason behind these only child statistics? Many parents are actively choosing to have a singular kid, and they're also marrying later in life, which sets the stage for fertility problems that can leave them with a small family by default.

We turned to experts to learn more about the myth of only child syndrome, and how to go about parenting when your kid doesn't have any siblings.

Only Child Syndrome Isn't Real...But Only Children Have Lots of Positive Traits

There's plenty of good news about only child qualities. Research shows that they're self-confident, well-organized, and ambitious. In fact, an only child's personality benefits from their parents' undivided attention and emotional support in several ways, say experts. The dynamic can instill high self-esteem, foster maturity, and enable a child to develop a strong identity.

"Only children typically have strong personalities and know who they are because their needs aren't overlooked, and they don't compete for attention," explains Erika Karres, author of Make Your Kids Smarter and an educational consultant who practices out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

As it turns out, the fact that only children spend so much time alone is also an advantage. "Onlies are often creative and focused because they need to learn to entertain themselves. They'll build that cathedral out of blocks," Karres says.

Tips for Raising an Only Child

Sometimes, the actions of parents can contribute to the negative traits associated with only child syndrome. Here are the most common pitfalls and effective strategies on how to sidestep them.

Don't Overprotect Your Only Child

"These parents put all their eggs in one basket, so it's natural for them to be extra cautious," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a psychologist, the mother of an only child, and author of Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. "When an only child starts to walk, his parents hover over him and don't let him fall. When an only child gets in a fight with a friend, her parents rescue her. She can't learn how to navigate the world if her parents always are interfering or fighting her battles."

When appropriate, try to look the other way and check in with friends who are the parents of siblings. Asking them what their parameters are in tricky situations can help you strike a balance between protection and overprotective.

Encourage Social Interaction

Since only children are the center of their parents' universe, these kids may have difficulty relating to peers.

"Early socialization helps them learn how to share, take turns, and resolve conflicts," says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City.

Make sure your child spends plenty of time with other kids their age through play dates and classes. If you live near family, time spent with cousins in the same age group can offer sibling socialization benefits, too.

Don't Set Unrealistic Expectations

Some only children become perfectionists to please their parents, who may impose high (or even unrealistic) expectations on them because the child is their one shot at parenting success.

Keep your expectations in line with your child's age and natural abilities, and assure them they don't have to be the best at everything. For example, if your child loves to draw, that doesn't mean they have to (or will) become a gifted artist. Focus on their enjoyment of the activity rather than the goal of creating a mini Picasso.

Let Your Child Make Decisions

"When Mommy and Daddy are the sole directors of a kid's life, an only child can end up relying on their input before making a move. If you're always doing and thinking for your child, she won't learn to do and think for herself," says Shimm.

To set the stage for future decision-making, give your toddler simple choices. For example, at bedtime, does your child want you to read Babar or Curious George? Also, try not to make too many suggestions when your little one is playing, such as what color crayon to use or where to put the piece of the puzzle.

With a lot of love from you and some help from friends, your only child will turn into a well-adjusted little person.

The Bottom Line

Only child syndrome is not a real thing. However, some stigmatized personality traits often associated with the behaviors of kids of single-child families are real and can develop in any child with or without siblings.

The good news is that these negative behaviors can be avoided through mindful parenting. By taking steps such as setting boundaries, teaching kids to be independent and responsible, and encouraging social interaction, parents can ensure that their only child will have a healthy emotional world.

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  1. Statista. Number of families in the United States by number of children under 18 living in the household from 2000 to 2022.

  2. Falbo, T. (2012). Only children: An updated review. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 68(1), 38–49.

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