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What is only child syndrome?

What is only child syndrome?

“Only child syndrome” is a popular but controversial term used to describe a set of perceived negative traits or characteristics that are thought to be common among children who grow up without siblings. These traits may include selfishness, loneliness, introversion, difficulty sharing, and an overdeveloped sense of independence. 

However, it’s important to note that there is little scientific evidence to support the existence of this syndrome, and many experts believe that it is a myth. 

While it is true that being an only child can come with unique challenges and experiences, it is also important to recognize that all children are individuals with their own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. The idea that being an only child inherently leads to negative outcomes is not supported by research, and many only children go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives.

What Are the Symptoms of Only Child Syndrome?

Since only child syndrome is not an actual condition, there are no real symptoms. However, there are several traits that are stereotypically associated with only child syndrome, including self-centeredness, lack of social skills, and perfectionism. These traits may be what someone is referring to when they talk about only child syndrome. However, these are only assumptions and do not necessarily apply to every person without siblings.


Infographic explaining what only child syndrome is

Does Being an Only Child Affect Personality?

Although it’s not the sole determining factor, growing up as an only child can have an impact on personality development. Here are some ways in which being an only child may influence personality:

  • Independence: Only children may learn to be self-reliant and independent at an early age, as they do not have siblings to rely on for companionship or help with tasks.
  • Maturity: Only children may develop a greater level of maturity than their peers, as they often spend more time around adults than other children.
  • Creativity: Only children may be more likely to engage in imaginative play and creative pursuits, as they often have to entertain themselves.
  • Socialization: Only children may have fewer opportunities to develop social skills and may feel more comfortable in adult company than around peers.
  • Perfectionism: Only children may feel pressure to live up to high expectations and may become perfectionistic as a result.

The idea that single children have certain negative traits dates back to the 19th century. Psychologist G. Stanley Hall said that being an only child was “a disease in itself.” In one questionable study from the 1890’s, E.W. Bohannon conducted a questionnaire in which participants were asked to describe only children that they knew—many described them as “excessively” indulged. These findings contributed to the stereotypes about only children that are still around today—however, several studies from the 20th century and more recently have debunked them.

What Is the Personality of an Only Child?

There is no single “personality” that can be attributed to all only children. Just like individuals from any other family structure, only children can have a wide range of personalities and traits that are influenced by a variety of factors. 

With that being said, only children may exhibit certain characteristics more commonly than those who grow up with siblings. For example, some only children may be more independent, confident, and achievement-oriented than their peers with siblings. They may also be more comfortable with adult company, since they haven’t had siblings to socialize with as much. 

However, it’s important to note that these are just general trends, and every only child is unique. There are many other factors that can influence an individual’s personality, including parenting style, culture, and personal experiences.

Only Child Syndrome Psychology

“Only child syndrome” is a popular but misleading term — it’s not a clinical diagnosis, and there’s no scientific evidence of its existence. The belief that only children are spoiled, selfish, or maladjusted is a myth. 

It is important to note that being an only child does not inherently cause any particular set of problems or challenges. Instead, many of the factors that may contribute to challenges for only children are the same as those that can affect children with siblings, such as parenting style, family dynamics, socialization experiences and individual personality traits. 

Some parents with only one child may have different expectations for their child than families with multiple children, which can lead to a different upbringing and different outcomes. Only children may miss out on certain social experiences that siblings provide, such as learning to share, cooperate, and resolve conflicts. These circumstances lead many to conclude that only children end up with poor social skills.

However, these potential challenges can be reduced through socialization opportunities, such as play dates, sports teams, and other group activities. Ultimately, the idea of “only child syndrome” is a stereotype that does not reflect the reality of the diversity of experiences and outcomes of only children. While being a single child may present unique challenges, it is not intrinsically problematic, and many only children grow up to be happy, successful and well-adjusted adults.

Only Child Syndrome Characteristics in Adults

Below are some common characteristics that are often associated with only children in adulthood:

  • High self-esteem: It’s believed that only children receive more attention or praise from their parents than those with siblings, which could lead to higher self-esteem.
  • Perfectionism: Only children may have a tendency to be perfectionists, as they may have grown up feeling pressure to live up to high standards.
  • Independence: Only children may be independent and self-reliant, as they were often left to entertain themselves and solve problems on their own.
  • Difficulty sharing: Only children may struggle with sharing and cooperating with others, as they may be used to having things their way.
  • Preference for alone time: Only children may enjoy spending time alone and may find socializing exhausting.

It’s important to remember that these are just generalizations, and not all only children will exhibit these characteristics. Additionally, many of these traits can also be found in people who have siblings or who were not only children, as personality is shaped by a variety of factors beyond just family size.

Why Being an Only Child is a Red Flag?

Being an only child in and of itself is not a red flag. However, there are certain circumstances where being an only child could potentially be a red flag in terms of personality traits or socialization skills. For example, if an only child has been overly sheltered and protected by their parents, they may struggle with decision-making skills since they lack the opportunity to learn these skills through sibling interactions. Additionally, if the only child has always had their parents’ undivided attention and had their every need catered to, they may struggle with sharing and considering others’ perspectives. 

However, it’s important to note that these are generalizations and are not necessarily true for all only children. Being an only child can also have its benefits, such as the ability to develop strong relationships with adults and having a close-knit family dynamic. 

Overall, being an only child is not inherently a red flag, and it’s important to evaluate people based on their own unique personalities and experiences rather than relying on stereotypes or assumptions.

Only Child Syndrome in Relationships

Research on this topic is mixed, and there is no clear consensus on whether being an only child has any significant impact on one’s relationships. That being said, some people may perceive individuals who are only children as having certain traits or tendencies that can affect their relationships. 

For example, some people may think that only children are more self-centered or have difficulty sharing, which could impact their ability to form healthy relationships with others. Additionally, only children may have grown up with more attention and resources from their parents, which could lead to a sense of entitlement or expectation that others will cater to their needs. This could cause issues in relationships if the individual expects their partner to prioritize their wants and needs above their own. 

With that being said, and as noted earlier, many of these traits can also be found in people who have siblings or who were not only children, as personality is shaped by a variety of factors beyond just family size or being a single child.

Only Child Syndrome in the Workplace

In terms of how it may present in the workplace, some of the supposed traits associated with only child syndrome include the following:

  • Self-centeredness: Some people believe that only children may be more likely to prioritize their own needs and wants over the needs of others. In the workplace, this could manifest as an unwillingness to collaborate with others or a tendency to take credit for team accomplishments.
  • Perfectionism: Only children may have high standards for themselves and may be highly critical of their own work. This can be a positive trait in some cases, but it may also lead to excessive self-criticism or an unwillingness to delegate tasks to others.
  • Difficulty with criticism: Some people believe that only children may struggle to handle criticism from others. In the workplace, this could manifest as defensiveness or a tendency to take feedback personally.

Only Child Syndrome in Marriages

Certain traits associated with only child syndrome may present in marriages in different ways, depending on the individual and the relationship dynamics. For example, an only child may have difficulty compromising with their partner or may struggle to communicate effectively when their needs are not being met. They may also struggle with sharing resources or space, leading to conflict in the relationship. It is important to remember that every person is unique, and should not be judged based on stereotypes or assumptions about their upbringing.

While there are certain circumstances faced by many only children that can influence their personality, this does not mean that they are all the same or have the same characteristics. Everyone’s personality is shaped by a variety of factors, and no one can be defined solely by their family situation.

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Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
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Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

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Delaney is a Marketing Writer Intern at Thriveworks, working toward her bachelor’s degree in English and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Delaney has experience as a copywriter for her university’s chemistry department and as a journalist for the student newspaper Cavalier Daily.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Not so lonely: Busting the myth of the only child. JSTOR Daily. (2015, November 8).

  • Boodman, S. G. (1995, October 24). The only child: Lonely or lucky?. The Washington Post.

  • Violett, A. (2015, December 8). Screwed up, little despots?. BPS.

  • Murphy, J. (2022, June 21). Is only child syndrome real?. Reader’s Digest: Online Magazine, Competitions and More.

  • Hartmann, C. (2019, January 21). Is only-child syndrome real?. Scientific American.


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