Is Only Child Syndrome Real?

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What Is Only Child Syndrome?

Only child syndrome is a theory suggesting that children who don't have siblings are bossy, spoiled, selfish, high-achieving, and lonely. It also proposes that only children have poor social skills due to a lack of interaction with other children and trouble sharing due to always having their parent's undivided attention.

Has anyone ever called you selfish or spoiled because you’re an only child? Or, have you ever assumed that someone doesn't get along well with others because they’re an only child? Or, perhaps if you want kids, you’ve thought to yourself that you want to have more than one so your child won't be lonely.

Being an only child is often associated with a number of characteristics—some negative, and some positive. People tend to believe that only children are independent, selfish, spoiled, incapable of sharing, unpleasant, and even lonely.

Only child syndrome was first introduced by psychologists in the 1800s. However, recent research suggests that this theory may not necessarily be accurate. 

This article explores the only child syndrome theory, the characteristics attributed to only children, and what psychologists have to say about this theory.

Characteristics Attributed to Only Children

Listed below are some of the characteristics attributed to only children, according to Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Negative Characteristics Attributed to Only Children

There is a belief that only children tend to be maladjusted and selfish, and have a strong preference for time alone.

It is believed that only children express these traits because they are accustomed to having all their needs, desires, and whims granted by their parents and grandparents when they are young, causing them to become spoiled. This extends beyond materialistic possessions, as it is believed that only children are habituated to receiving their parents' undivided attention as well.

Since they don’t have siblings to interact with, only children are believed to be lonely and poorly socialized. They are also believed to be incapable of compromising or working well with others, since they haven't had to share their toys, space, identity, and parents' attention with others.

As adults, the belief is that they become self-interested, have a primary focus on their own needs, struggle to manage relationships with others, and display poor social skills.

Positive Characteristics Attributed to Only Children

This theory attributes many positive traits to only children as well. 

For example, it is believed that the abundance of parental attention and praise for their accomplishments causes these children to be high achievers throughout their lives.

It is also believed that only children are more independent and protective of their alone time as they are accustomed to spending time alone and being self-sufficient. 

Only children are also believed to be sensitive to the needs of others, as they are sensitive to their parents' needs.

Is Only Child Syndrome Real?

The only child syndrome theory was proposed by psychologists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist who founded the concept of psychoanalysis, believed that only children were prone to sexual identity issues, and even suggested that parents with one child adopt a second child if they were unable to conceive again.

This recommendation was based on the work of two other influential psychologists of that era, namely G. Stanley Hall and E. W. Bohannon, who performed a survey and concluded that only children generally tended to have a number of peculiar and disadvantageous traits. In fact, Hall went so far as to declare that being an only child is a disease in itself.

Although this theory has received mainstream popularity, there is very little empirical research supporting it, says Dr. Romanoff. Hall’s work has been scrutinized since and many of his theories have been rejected in academic circles; however, they continue to be referenced in popular culture.

In the second half of the 20th century, research disputing the only child syndrome theory started to emerge.

A review published in 1987 notes that other research studies conducted around that time have concluded that being an only child, or “onliness,” is not a determinant of personality development. In fact, the review also found that other factors such as birth order and family size don’t necessarily influence one’s personality the way we think they do.

Research finds that being an only child does not automatically cause characteristic differences from children with siblings, says Dr. Romanoff. “Instead, the current understanding is that genetics, the environment, stressors, and life circumstances are much more predictive of personality.”

Research also shows that parenting styles between parents of only children and parents of multiple children are not drastically different, and that people with only one child are not necessarily overprotective of their child or likely to spoil them.

Implications of the Only Child Syndrome Theory

The popularity of the only child syndrome theory has implications on the way we think of only children and their families. These are some of the implications of the theory. 

Stereotyping Only Children

This theory can cause people to unfairly stereotype only children.

Some only children may happen to be shy, timid, independent, or self-absorbed. However, it’s not necessarily because they grew up without siblings. And it certainly doesn’t mean that all only children are that way. Or even that children who have siblings won’t have those traits.

People are often quick to criticize and judge when someone who happens to be an only child displays any of these traits, whereas children who have siblings may be given more leeway.

Altering Family Planning

This theory also affects how we think about family planning. Many parents may decide to have more than one child because they don’t want their child to grow up lonely, or have difficulty socializing

Even people who are not inclined to have a second child may face familial or societal pressure to do so because society tends to perceive families with one child as incomplete. Those who choose not to have a second child may often be criticized for their decision.

A Word From Verywell

If you are an only child, or you know someone who is, remember that only children get a bad rap that is often undeserved. 

If you're a parent of an only child, you can encourage additional socialization that might naturally occur among siblings by arranging activities with children their own age that they can relate to, says Dr. Romanoff. “Parents can also focus on teaching their child important lessons when it comes to patience, sharing, and turn-taking, and avoid overindulging their child.”

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michigan State University. Myths and facts of being an only child.

  2. Bohannon EW. The only child in a family. The Pedagogical Seminary. 1898;5(4):475-496. doi:10.1080/08919402.1898.10534031

  3. JSTOR. Not so lonely: Busting the myth of the only child.

  4. Polit, D. F., Falbo, T. Only children and personality development: A quantitative review. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 1987, 49(2), 309–325. doi:10.2307/352302

  5. Levy RL, Murphy TB, Kamp K, Langer SL, van Tilburg MAL. Parental response to only children: breaking the stereotypes. Children (Basel). 2021;8(7):605. doi:10.3390/children8070605

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.