Only Child Syndrome: Is It Real and Does it Affect Kids’ Personalities?

August 17, 2020

by Andreea Sterea

only child syndrome

If you are an only child and the word goes that you’re spoiled, a bit less agreeable than the average, quite creative, but a bit odd, you might experience Only Child Syndrome. But do you, really? Considered a myth and backed up by very few longitudinal studies, when it comes to the validity and consequences of the Only Child Syndrome in adults, the jury requires more evidence.

Only Child Syndrome: Definition and History

If you ever wonder what is Only Child Syndrome and whether you experience it yourself as an only child, let’s begin with a little bit of history.

We are all aware that only children often have a terrible reputation and are subject to stereotypes. It also puts quite the unnecessary pressure on parents who feel they must offer their first-born a sibling; otherwise, the first child will not become a “whole” person. They say about only children that they are selfish, unable to share property, isolated, maladjusted, arrogant, and lonely. However, the Only Child Syndrome as an issue received its fair share of scrutiny or disbelief in the scientific world.

Only Child Syndrome Origin

The Only Child Syndrome is a term coined in the 19th century by psychologists E. W. Bohannon from Clark University in Massachusetts and G. Stanley Hall. In the paper A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children, the two authors discussed the results of a questionnaire filled out by 200 research subjects.

They aimed to highlight the peculiarities presented by only children in families they knew. The result that led to the establishment of the Only Child Syndrome was that 196 out of 200 participants said that only children were spoiled.

The idea took hold among psychologists, despite its flaws that now we consider obvious: the sample group was excessively small to generate statistical valid population extrapolations, while the questionnaire was a new form of data collection back in the day. As we know now, surveys are a part of qualitative research that, by definition, is incomplete and quite unreliable without quantitative analysis to back it up.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century, society itself was wary of only children. People feared that kids growing up without siblings, smothered by their parents’ undivided attention, would become hypersensitive and, eventually, hypochondriac.

Unfortunately, Hall’s and Bohannon’s theory and findings gained popularity in the scientific community. They saw the Only Child Syndrome as a disease in itself, marked by peculiarities and disadvantages.

only child

Only Child Syndrome Symptoms

According to Bohannon, only children displayed behavioral symptoms along the lines of spoiling, anti-social traits, anti-sharing attitudes, not playing well with others, aggressiveness, bossy attitudes, selfishness, dependency, and more. However, let us not forget that psychologists conducted the studies in the 1800s when only children living in rural areas were indeed living in isolation and didn’t probably go to school.

While you may see the only child syndrome symptoms in the modern, tech-savvy kids of our times, you should not have concerns about your single-child family unit. According to social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., we should shake off the Only Child Syndrome myths, as they are not helping anyone:

These social stereotypes and others date back to the late 1890s and have no basis in fact and probably never did. It is parenting style more than the number of siblings that influences how an only child — or any child for that matter — turns out.

New Scientific Findings Regarding the Only Child Syndrome

You do not need advanced degrees in psychology to figure out that the families we grow up in shape the ways we develop and behave in childhood and our adult lives. Growing up as an only child also has advantages, according to Dr. Newman.

Only children tend to be more independent; they manage to entertain better themselves, learn quickly to build mutually trusting and supporting relationships with their friends, and have little to no issues with being lonely in adulthood, by their own accounts.

These results found a backup in psychologist Toni Falbo’s research on only children. Across all the meta-analyses she conducted, the only difference she found was that only children appeared to have established stronger bonds with their parents in comparison to children who were born in small families and had siblings.

Later on, a 2018 study conducted by Andreas Klocke and Sven Stadtmüller from the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences supported Falbo’s results. The longitudinal data from around 10,000 German schoolchildren confirmed that most of them had positive relationships with their parents. And, even if only children wished to have a playmate in the family, they turned out just fine in adulthood.

only child syndrome myths

Only Children vs. Children with Siblings: Differences in Cognition and Personality

People often assume that an only child is self-centered, unable to compromise, intolerant of others, and overall terrible in developing and maintaining social relationships. Research from 2017, conducted by Chinese psychologist Jiang Qiu of Southwest University, Chongqing went beyond attitudes and behaviors. The study focused on children’s brain structural development. The psychologist wanted to learn whether behavior differentially had a neural basis between only-children and non-only-children. Here is what the study revealed:

Only-children exhibited higher flexibility scores (a dimension of creativity) and lower agreeableness scores (a dimension of personality traits) than non-only-children. Most importantly, the gray matter volume results revealed that there were significant differences in the gray matter volume between only-children and non-only-children that occurred mainly in the brain regions of the supramarginal gyrus, which was positively correlated with flexibility scores; the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which was positively correlated with agreeableness scores; and the parahippocampal gyrus. These findings may suggest that family environment (i.e., only-child vs. non-only-child), may play important roles in the development of the behavior and brain structure of individuals.

The Takeaway of this Study: Only-Children are Not Worse than Others

According to the study, both only children and non-only children scored the same on intelligence. However, only children fared better on the flexibility score, meaning they are more capable of thinking outside the box and come up with solutions that are more creative to new problems.

The scores for personality traits such as extraversion, openness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness were the same across the two study groups. It is true that what makes only children different shows up in their brain structure.

It is also true that in the Chinese study, only children scored poorly on agreeability – a measure thought to describe empathy, sociability, and the ability to build a connection to others.

On the other hand, we have to remember that the Only Child policy in China was in effect for decades, becoming more relaxed in the past couple of years. And, while nobody talks openly about it, the preference of Chinese parents (or politics) for boys created significant disruptions of the Chinese sex ratio in present times.

Add the cultural differences, together with socio-economical variations, and you can understand why science is reluctant to extrapolate the only-child study results on the Western population.

Our children have more means to socialize and develop genuine human connections than ever before. They go to school, they have friends, and are part of a hi-tech, super-connected world, even if they have no siblings at home. In other words, you don’t have to worry about not wanting a second child.

In the words of Dr. Newman, the single-child family unit model of our Western society is here to stay.

Only Child Syndrome: Bottom Line

The DSM 5 does not include the Only Child Syndrome as an official disorder. The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you. On the contrary, you have plenty of chances to be more creative than others and ingenious in problem-solving. We all know people who have siblings and who are selfish, so everything reverts to heredity, environment, learning, and maturation.

Now, it is time for your input! Did you ever hear about the Only Child Syndrome or is it another factoid to include on your list of weird science facts?

More importantly, are you an only child? Do you think you display some symptoms of the Only Child Syndrome and if you do, do they bother you or your peers? Feel free to use the comments section to share your experiences as an only child or a non-only child and dig deeper into the topic!

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