Only Child Syndrome: Is It Real?

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on March 9, 2016Written by Leah Campbell on March 9, 2016
Only Child Syndrome

More and more lately I find myself facing the very strong possibility that my daughter will be an only child.

That was never the plan. I had always wanted a big family. Five kids was my ideal number. But life doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to, and I may not get much of a choice in this matter.

My daughter may very well be an only.

Of course, as someone who has always valued the idea of lots of kids running around, it’s hard to imagine my child without a sibling. And it’s even harder to battle against my own internal struggles over what I have always perceived to be the downfalls of having an only child.

The development of “only child syndrome.”

The Stereotype

We all know what I’m talking about, right? The preconceived notions we each think of when we hear about an only child. We assume that child is probably:

  • selfish
  • spoiled
  • unaccustomed to playing with others
  • narcissistic
  • demanding
  • completely dependent
  • in need of constant attention

Of course, most of us would never share those thoughts out loud. We would never want to be accused of buying into the stereotypes. But the thoughts are there. These are the characteristics we attribute to only child syndrome.

The Origin

The problem is, only child syndrome isn’t actually a real thing. It’s not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have never issued any warnings pertaining to only child syndrome. And your pediatrician will never throw those words around as an official diagnosis.

Only child syndrome is a made up condition that mostly came about because of flawed research in the late 19th century. Back then, a group of researchers from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts sent out questionnaires to teachers across the country asking questions about their students. They eventually compiled a report including 1,045 children, and their results identified being an only child as a “disease in itself.”

Why? They identified behavior they deemed to be “peculiar and exceptional” in only children. One example included a child pretending to play with make believe classmates at home. This is something that most of us can recognize as completely normal (and indicative of a great imagination!) today.

Later research would go on to discredit those initial findings, but because the original assessment had been made that only children were stunted, the stereotypes prevailed. 

The Reality

Over the last several decades, plenty of research has been done on only children. Some of that research has yielded positive benefits to being an only child, and some has reinforced negative connotations.

The reality is, there are some differences between how only children and children of larger families are raised. But the myth of the “only child syndrome” is just that: a myth. Only children vary just as much amongst themselves as children with siblings do.

What Parents of Only Children Should Know

Determining how many children to have is a very personal decision. Some families may decide they prefer the idea of only one child, feeling as though that allows for a better allocation of resources. And for some families, it may not be a choice at all. Factors like infertility and finances may keep you from expanding your family beyond one, even if you desperately wish to do so.

Regardless of the reasons, it would appear as though only child families are on the rise. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you’re a family currently raising an only child, it’s important for you to know this: There is no such thing as only child syndrome. Your child isn’t doomed to a life of selfishness or narcissistic behavior. Not having a sibling doesn’t mean that your little one will inevitably grow up unable to socialize with others.

Being an only child is not a marker of future life potential.

Still, there are things you can do to help to counteract some of the possible negatives of being an only child. For instance, you can focus on reaching out to other families with children the same age as your child. Try to foster an environment where you spend frequent time with those families and your child is routinely exposed to other kids their age.

You can also work to remain aware of not allowing your child to become your only priority. It’s good for kids to see their parents caring about other things and people as well. And you can encourage your child to forge some independence by making a conscious effort to step back from time to time, allowing them to navigate their own worlds.

The Takeaway

Parenting is hard, whether you have one child or six. There are different challenges to every single parenting situation you can imagine. Just remember that only child syndrome isn’t a real thing, and that you have a great deal of power when it comes to instilling the values you deem important in your child.

There are an overwhelming number of factors that will contribute to the kind of person your child will grow to be. Being an only child is just one small piece of that puzzle, and you may find that your little one gains far more than they lose as a result of their only child status in the years to come.

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