What exactly is only child syndrome?

by on November 7, 2011

in Bernice's Research


Since I posted Durango’s article on only child syndrome there has been quite a lot of response – so I thought I would  post some of my research and thoughts.

The word syndrome taken from the Greek word ‘sundromos’ meaning ‘running together’, is used for a group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease or psychological disorder, and can be attributed to a distinctive or characteristic pattern of behaviour. The strong medical connotations and the negative meaning usually attached to the word syndrome makes the word emotive and in many ways derogatory to the experience of the only-child. However I will explore this so called ‘syndrome’ from only child literature, popular ideas and prejudice.

 Shil1978 wrote in ‘Pros and Cons of Being The Only Child’:

The advantages could be that you get the undivided love and attention of your parents. They would dote on you more and provide for you more – in terms of getting you stuff, toys, etc. Obviously, being an only child means that your parents have only you to spend the money on and not have to share it among other siblings. So, you’d get more toys than normal, more money to spend than normal, more inheritance than normal, and of course more love from your parents than normal. So, in that sense, being the only child can be termed as a good thing.

I think this is a good summary of what most people who have siblings see as the advantages – and lets face it, put like this, they do seem very good. This is what the pro only child lobby focus upon. However I suspect has beneath these good intentions is an underlying wish to give your child everything you feel you missed out on. If we turn our attention to China and the one child policy, this is exactly what many Chinese parents and grandparents have attempted to do. If you can only have one child, of course you are going to ensure that it has the best of everything. In the context of the hardships and privations that Chinese people have experienced in the last few centuries, this makes a great deal of sense. However one of the negative aspects of the on child policy is the – Little Emperor Syndrome.

As the Times recently published in Costly legacy for the spoilt Little Emperors:

Ice creams and piano lessons, designer sneakers and a flat of their own: these are some of the extras that China’s only children receive from their doting families. The one-child policy has created a generation of Little Emperors.

Or again in an older article in Asiaweek:

The world that China’s kids inhabit is a far cry from that of their parents. The earlier hardships are scarcely fathomable to today’s TV watching, French-fry chomping young. Having been denied education and material goods as children, many adults wildly over-compensate in doting on their kids. ‘Parents have a hard time saying no’ says Xia Ming, who teaches environmental studies at the Children’s Palace. ‘They had nothing, so the kids are their only hope’ (Reese, 27.9.1999)

These articles, and similar ones, emphasise both the only-child’s unwillingness to take responsibility and their lack of independence. However it is hard for children to take responsibility and be independent if they are not brought up to do this. In a previous article on three types of only children two opposing views of the only child were described. One states only children are disadvantaged because they are deprived of the learning experiences siblings offer, and the second emphasises the uniqueness of only children who are never dethroned and have all the parental attention. As I wrote in Are Only Children Happier? Many of the negative attitudes towards only children are based on the following view that only children are:

  • Over indulged
  • Require constant attention
  • Are selfish – and put their needs first
  • Expect their needs to be instantly gratified
  • Fear independence and leaving home
  • Can’t empathise with others as their world revolves around themselves – in psychological terms narcissistic.

This is the basis of the syndrome. As Durango Texas wrote:

The Only Children I’ve known have all pretty much matched the cliches about children who had no siblings. Spoiled, bratty, self-centred, selfish, an odd sense of entitlement, difficult to get along with plus a tendency to say inappropriate things that are rude and ill-mannered. Yet being extremely hyper-sensitive and brittle about even the most remotely critical remark going in their direction.

To be honest I do not think the idea of a syndrome at all helpful and I am against pathologising behaviour,which we are all capable of at times. However I do believe the experience of growing up without siblings has an effect and is on a continuum of being good in some instances but bad in others. I will say more about this at a later date. In the meantime lets hear from other people on this thorny topic.

  • Anahata

    Why is it that you never hear the term “Only Adult”? 

    Why does the label “only child” persist throughout one’s life. Irregardless of how old you are, how many decades ago childhood was – we’re still referred to as only children.  Bit difficult not to respond with disdain to people who insist on infantilizing you with a stereotype, which is inappropriate and must be one of the last forms of  insidious prejudice and scapegoating  that is condoned in all societies. 

    The experience of growing up without siblings does has an effect, yes.  You grow up not really aware of how ignorant other people are or how consistently you will be dealing with people who will robotically say, “Oh you’re an only child. You must be selfish hehehehe”.

    How many murderers/serial killers were only children?

    • Stephanie

      The label “only child” persists throughout one’s life because it refers to the time when you were a child. “Only adult” doesn’t make any sense. “Only child syndrome” is talking about being raised, AS A CHILD, with no siblings. 

      P.S. Irregardless isn’t a word, it’s a double negative. ;)  

    • Deborah Boyland

      Did you seriously just try to say being called an only child is one of the last forms of insidious prejudice accepted by society? Fucking black boys are being shot down by police everyday and no one gets prosecuted a boy told everyone he hates women and is going to kill women and people put it down to mental health rather than the screwed up society that told him women are beneath him and lgbt communities are still being legally murdered for wanting to be in a relationship. Get your head out your arse.

    • Raymond Martin

      Pfft. You just sound like you are in denial. Now that wouldn’t be the hypercritical reaction of an only child would it?

    • Elly

      The word “child” has two meanings: 1. Offspring, which can also refer to adults. 2. A young person who has to be cared for by adults because they can’t care for themselves yet. In the middle ages, only the first meaning existed, the second one arrived later.
      In the phrase “only child” the first meaning is used. If you don’t have siblings, you’re an only child regardless of your age.

    • Crystal

      I am just referring to your question about How many murderers/serial killers were only children? I just researched this myself it is 5 in 65 which is the lowest probability. Eldest and middle “people” are 4 times more likely to become murderers/serial killers. As well as out of the 5 of 65 majority has had a traumatic childhood and or abandonment. I hope this is what you were looking for .

  • englishgirl

    I was brought up as an only child into a family where my parents split after 13 years of nasty, scary, and sometimes horrifying daily arguments. I am not saying I wasn’t loved – in fact it was the complete opposite – but the loneliness of being the only child nearly drowned me. The lack of another young person during these years made me grow up cynical, angry, and scared to be alone. I am not idolising having siblings as I have seen the detrimental effect some siblings can have on one another, but to have no one that shared my years of hell is a thought so overwhelming that I try not to think about it, so as to break away from its burden. As I grow up, I am finding the realisation that very soon both my parents will be gone a confusing one. I would love for these so-called ‘scientists’ to experience the complex and suffocatingly lonely feelings that I have felt throughout my entire life, and then tell us that being an only child is better. Yes, I had lots of toys, but 20 Barbie Dolls does not make up for a family. 

    • Hollist22

      I was an only child too and grew up in a home with parents who were more focused on their problems with each other than putting their focus on me. It’s because of these problems that they turned to their jobs to escape from each other. Two parents that work overtime like crazy don’t have the time to spend with their daughter who is left at home- completely alone with just a cat for comfort. I completely sympathize with you about growing up as a pre-teen and as a teenager trying to cope with their fights by myself. I had no one else for comfort or no one else to try to understand why I had these feelings of emptiness. Despite what most people think an only child goes through, the constant love and attention that they think happens with these children was something I wasn’t blessed with. Also, yes I was spoiled as well, especially after all those overtime hours rack up, but objects can never fill that void that another human being can give.

      • bambam

        same here,i know that void and the continuous search always searching if there is someone that can stay, they say only children are clingy, but they dont think about why, once everyone leaves, the child by him/herself AGAIN, the house become something else and we draw closer to ourselves , and they call only children selfish, because it was ourselves who got us through the tough times, of course we are gonna take care of ourselves,

    • algaealan

      I was an only child and grew up with poor. My parents got a long great but we grew up in a rural “hillbilly” little town and I didnt get relate or fit in with ANY of the kids in the town. My parents were both raised middle class and moved to a poor town when we moved in. In that manner, everyone else in town was completely different than my parents and I felt alienated. There was no little emperor syndrome as there was nothing much to give, but my grandmother did bring me toys. The biggest problem, as englishgirl stated, was the lonliness. we moved to connecticut when i was 16 to a middle class neighborhood and i met kids like me you could say, people that thought and acted like i did. Shortly after I started doing drugs and eventually at 21 was an interveinous heroin addict and at 22 went to jail for two years. The lonliness had a big impact on my life for years and haunted me for a long time, but now im a drug and alchohol counselor at yale hospital in new haven with a bachelors degree and working towards a masters in order to diagnose and prescribe dual suffering patients. Not having any siblings to share my pain effected me more when my parents got divorced, but going through all the hardships is what makes me confident today. Any negative connotations against only children, well thats all in the way their parents raise them, but i garuntee if you can get through the lonliness (if thats a problem you’ve faced) later on in life youll have a fuck lot more character than a lot people. Hardship is what makes us who we are, and reflecting on how we deal with the hardships within ourselves is what makes us learn and know, really know, who we are. Thats how you build real character. If bad parents and “experts” want to soil the reputation i have built withing myself as hard working and able to overcome any obstacle as an only child… well its not up for discussion. And i apologize for the grammer, this isnt formal right ;)

      • sou

        you give me plenty to think about. My age i hide,ashamed of time wasted considering what path to take when in reallity i dont even see the paths, to sit rocking (simply from bordom or not knowing how to use the brain i know i have) and procastrinating has served me well until the drugs dont work anymore.I know find myself in a place it seems you long since past. From reading your peice it further confirms my choices diminish. One of those is a slow disguised suisied and thats one of two. Somehow i cant end that way because some thing tells me how it ends is what matters. Ifi got to my true self soul whatever and died as soon as i did that would have me die in peace. lonelyness would matter no more

    • http://twitter.com/Chaekyung_3111 Marie Tacloban

      I completely understand you. 

    • bambam

      OMG i almost wanted to cry when i saw this, i experienced the exact same thing, no one understands. all they say is that you have a lot of stuff, but they dont know the war that goes on inside, how we always have to be on alert mode the moment we wake up, is there any bad thing today? is there any arguments i need to tent do, is the day gonna be worse than yesterday? Will i be able to act ok and finish my task at the same time? :( seeing parents fight by yourself is like ur heart literately gets split apart and u have to mend it yourself after they finish the fight awww, i hear you, you are not alone

    • k_vasq88

      Absolutely true. I feel the same way! I thought I was one of the few who felt this way but these are my thoughts exactly. I was beginning to think I had depression. And I always wonder why I’m so terrified of losing my mother and being alone (my father passed away when I was very young). I think it’s very difficult to change who you are if this is how us “only children” were born and raised. Not saying I’m intentionally selfish, but I’m beginning to realize how inconsiderate I am and how much diarrhea of the mouth I have. Such difficult behaviors to stop when you know no difference.

  • Mother in law of only child

    Yet being extremely hyper-sensitive and brittle about even the most remotely critical remark going in their direction… Need they say more…

    • responder

      Look at the statement you just made. However subjective or incorrect your assumptions about him/her may be, he/she is an only child, therefore, you are right.

      Classic ad hominem argument.

  • Billiam

    “The advantages could be that you get the undivided love and attention of your parents. ”

    Unless of course, they’re the sort of people who don’t show emotion (other than frustration and the occasional outburst of anger)?

    “They would dote on you more and provide for you more – in terms of getting you stuff, toys, etc. Obviously, being an only child means that your parents have only you to spend the money on and not have to share it among other siblings. So, you’d get more toys than normal, more money to spend than normal, more inheritance than normal…”

    Unless of course, your parents are poor. I’m an only child and I was constantly told I must be ‘spoilt’ and people still tell me that now. I tend to point out that my best friend, who had two brothers, got £10 a week pocket money (and in the early 80s that was a hell of a lot) whereas I got 50p a week.

    Did I feel spoilt? Did I feel loved more than other children? No, I felt lonely and suicidal. Much like I do now that I’m an adult with no prospects, no partner, no children and no friends.

    • understandingone

      Im really sorry you feel the way you do. When i read ths comment it brought tears streamming down my face. For this reason Jesus Christ lived and died so you will never be alone. Please dont harm yourself! Talk to someone and look up and talk to Christ. Ask him into your life. Ask him to fill the void you have and that hole in your heart will be filled with love that can never be taken away! No im not an only child but i know what feeling lonely and suicidal feels like, not a good place to be mentally. Not until i realized the love of Christ and how much he loves me, unconditionaly, did i feel worthy. Now. . .all i can say is AMAZNG LOVE FROM ABOVE! #BelieveInChrist

    • ebony

      This sounds like a case of grass is greener on the other side. If their were other issues between the parents having a sibling would not change those problems either way. We are all alone sibling or no sibling at the end of the day, at some point you must deal with yourself.

  • guest

    humm, I was an only child, I am over sensitive when it comes to criticism and a desire to be liked by others but by no means am I a little emperor. This is called good parenting and not a result of my birth order. We all have our flaws.

    It really irritates me when people generalize because it makes them not only seem narrow minded but also lacking in exposure to diversity in our communities. Live in a country and culture that speak a different language than you for three years and then talk about what an only child is/isn’t. Only children can also be stereotyped as having than average higher intelligence and also better conversational skills when it comes to our elders. It’s all relative and generalizing individuals who are all incredibly unique. Not very helpful.

    • guest

       higher than average intelligence, rather..whoops

  • ..

    I have a daughter one only. I am a single mother. Much apprieciate.that. I do everything from bring home the bacon to basic everything she needs n requires. She always want friends. My family is a province away. I am doing the best I can for her and me. She is in daycare and grade one. I learned how to say no. Finally. She will be fine. As opposed to me grew up big family of ten. No one on one attention. that’s a lonesome feeling n tons of siblings fighting n fighting you. I don’t regret my life its what I chose. I survived, she will survive.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AUSIEZQK5HW7UMY7U5WCXU2INU Daniela Cervantes

    The only people who understand only children are other only children. I’ve noticed this one thousand times. While my cousin, who has a brother, complains about her only child friend, Britney, I come to her defense :)  

  • Mtherself

    Let me just say that I grew up with an older sister (4 yrs older) who loathed my existence and to this day we are not close.  I felt lonely with a sibling.  Life goes on….

  • Cmrob917

    Wow!!! I’m an only child and have grown up in a two parent home and my parents are still married. Still at the age of 25 a lot of the facts listed in this article are still prevelent. It’s sad to say when it comes down to certain things I can still be quite selfish!! Even through college I didn’t want a roommate because I was used to having my own space. Some people say that i’m rude but I just say what’s on my mind not meaning any harm tho. It’s really crazy reading this article because I didn’t think I was dealing with the “only child syndrome” until someone told me today and I looked it up. I’ve been this way for so long I doubt it will change but I’ll be willing to try.

  • Rae

    I am also an only child and I loathe it so much!! I envy the relationship some siblings have knowing I can never have it. It is really lonely sometimes but it doesn’t bother me if I don’t think about it and I suppose there are some pros to it too. One thing I’ve noticed from being around other only children as well as myself is that they can’t really get close to people. Even though I’ve had the same friends since grade school in my heart I don’t feel close to them nor do I think I deeply care for their well being. I know it’s a really sad thing to say, I suppose only children aren’t really use to thinking about others. On top of that I am a big disbeliever of unrequited relationships, I only like people who are good to me, if I feel any criticism/dislike towards me I am ready to drop my association with the person.

    • oeb25

      Let me guess: you weren’t raised in any sort of religious household. I was, and I never can remember NOT “caring about other people.”

  • KB

    I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters. We have always been poor and I am glad because it has made us extremely ambitious, tolerant of poverty and hard working in the long run. I love my siblings with everything that I have and wouldn’t sacrifice any of them for anything. They are always there for me, they think the same way as me and arguments are petty overall. My boyfriend is an only child and I feel sorry for him. Having lots of siblings is the greatest of my blessings.

  • Nonexist

    Sometimes the stereotype fits, other times it does not. And even when it does there are varying degrees dependent on the person. Being an only child who lost the most important male figures in his life at an early age and being raised by women who were stereotypically catty and overly emotional, I sort of never could be in a normal relationship. Being so tired of getting nagged and pushed growing up, as an adult I stayed away from connecting with anyone. Maybe had my male role models lived instead of the female ones, it may have been better.

  • Twitch

    Being an only child, I can say that it has been NOTHING like what people with siblings say it is. Born into a family that never had much money, parents that worked constantly, was always being watched by other people as a kid (until I was old enough to stay home alone), etc… What I remember as a kid was the constant fighting, the abuse, the alcohol, and the very few and far in between “good” times I actually got to spend with my parents before they got divorced. If you were not born and raised as an only child, I will gladly say… you don’t know a god damn thing about what it’s like.

  • Citrine

    I am raising an only child who has currently turned 18 years of age.
    She thinks that my world revolves around her and because I am 50 years of age, she believes that I need her more.
    I believe the real issue is we are tied to other as mother and daughter but also, as codependent.
    Not only financially, given the economy but, emotionally…
    With that being said, I have promised myself and her once we both complete college within the next 5 years; I will be separating from her.
    She needs it and so do I.

  • Mike

    I am an only child and I can relate to most of the comments by others who are like me. Everyone else in my life from friends and other relatives really do not understand what it was like for me to have grown up without any siblings.
    It was very lonely at times even though there were friends of my parents who helped
    to babysit me. I always wanted to have someone my age to relate to and didn’t.
    I lost both of my parents and I can tell you it was very…terrifying each time because I still feel like I am a sole survivor if you will.
    My best friend,she,grew up in a household of six siblings and she really doesn’t get what it’s like being an only. She recently went on a trip with one of her girlfriends without me and I admit,I was and am still a bit angry at her even though she said it
    was a girls’ only trip. When you are an only and you are left out,it really feels like the other person is saying that you are not good enough. I know it sounds selfish on my part,but,even though my parents tried to not spoil me,I still have a bit of that
    narcisstic tendency in me which sort of proves the sterotype about only children.

  • responder

    I am an only child and I do not only think that pathologising behaviour, which we are all capable of, is not a good idea, but that the concept of differentiation by family circumstance creates a terrible and unfair stigma of only children being somehow handicapped. By family I mean at least one parent caring for the child without abuse.

    Nowadays they label every but compliant behavior as a disorder or a disease, because it deviates from some set standard. So then you see kids being diagnosed and treated as being too smart, too active, too disobedient, too distracted, too slow, too quiet, too loud, too this and too that. All because the system is so rigid it cannot handle the natural beauty of diversity that is present in every aspect of life, including brain development and personality.

    Originally, I wanted to comment on every trait from the list in this article, but I will comment only on the two most ridiculous ones.

    5- Fear independence and leaving home
    What a joke. I left home as soon as it was economically possible as did many others, only children as well as siblings. Actually, I left my country at 22 and still live abroad with good relations with my and my girlfriend’s family back home. Right now I can think of 4 families where one or both siblings failed to launch. They either keep failing and returning to live with their parents or they never checked out of Mama-hotel at all.

    6- Can’t empathise with others as their world revolves around themselves – in psychological terms narcissistic.
    Another joke that should instantly invalidate every psychologist’s Phd. The lack of empathy combined with narcissism can also be defined as psychopathy, or if you want to nitpick, sociopathy. The craziest madmen in history came from multi-child families. For example most Roman rulers, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and a vast majority of past and present powerful enterpreneurs and politicians who spread wars and famine under the mask of noble notions.

    Whoever came up with all those traits for only children is a charlatan, not a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

    Reading what Durango Texas wrote in his blog, I see a sad mans rant. Maybe he should just avoid people who irritate him and if he can not, he should look for ways to get along with them instead of marginalizing them as the “breed” he wants to have nothing to do with. I know I would avoid him, yet I wouldn’t go as far as labeling all Texans bigots.

  • Fradagio

    Only Child = Lonely Child

  • Ernest Ivy

    My son is an only child and is no different from anyone else. He has always had more than what he needed in life and he grew up happy because he got attention from both parents. Whether kids are an only child or not, they will have meaningful lives so long as the parent’s spend quality and supportive time with them.

  • lifeisshort

    Your life is all how you make of it quit complaining and get on with your life. im an only child from a single parent with cancer. i didnt boo hoo. get over yourself people!!

  • Cord Scott

    I’m an only child and I don’t agree with this article. What others see as selfishness in only children we (only children) see as independence and assertivness. We don’t understand why others, and I see it often, who grew up with siblings have constantly have help in navigating the some of the most mundane situations in life. Why they need to do everything in a group with consensus being more important than correctness. We have always had to do thing for ourselves and don’t understand why others need what we see as constant hand-holding.

    In my opinion those with sibling require more attention as it seems that they cannot be left alone for any significant amount of time before they require interaction with other people.

    Also, I’ve never been lonely for 1 minute in my life. I’ve missed people, but I’ve never been lonely, to me there is a difference.

  • EddieMarriage

    My 90-year-old mother is such an evil narcissist that, even though she had a sister, she talks like she (my mother) was an only child.

    She despised her younger sister to the point that she does not really acknowledge her sister to be a human being. In all my mother’s discussions, you would never know she had a sister. When I bring it up, and try and get her to acknowledge her little sister, my mother dismisses the relationship.

    My aunt died a few years ago. When I called my mother to tell her that her sister had died, her reaction was along the lines of “ho-hum, interesting news … now let’s get back to talking about my needs”.

    Narcissists like my mother are so evil, they really dismiss most other humans as being not human. It’s why I think they really don’t care about the deaths of other people.

  • kit

    My mother is an only child and she recently tried to sell me her mothers home that she did not have the right to do. This has had an irreversible effect on the small family that is left as her actions have broken it down. My stepdaughter of 34 years of age is an only child and recently was granted a felony for stealing a large amount of money from her close relative and has no ability to show responsibility for her action, remorse and even tried to excuse it away. My first cousin, an only child was one screwed up guy. We learn so much as children interacting with our siblings like sharing, showing love not just receiving it. We also learn how to deal with our emotions when we get in trouble for lets say punching my brother out or taking a toy that was his and not mine. I learned as most that these basic negative interactions are wrong and was made to deal(probably because my only child mother did not want to be bothered). These above mentioned close relatives did not get the opportunity to be punished for doing wrong because they did not have a sibling tattle on them. How do you teach an only child such basic living skills that we need in our later years so badly to be able to be socially responsible? You cannot teach them as adults cannot relate in the same way to their child as siblings can. Its my opinion that its not the only childs fault they end up with severe mental issues (as everyone I’ve known has)but is their responsibility as adults to deal with it. It does not give them an out to not be able to say sorry, thanks or maybe even the ability to do something for another.

  • SF1

    Yeah, I’m 70 years old and have a nephew who is 51 years old. Yes, he still exhibits the Only Child Syndrome. You know, stubborn, won’t listen to reasoning, no one knows more than he does and won’t listen long enough to find out…you know, the usual.

  • Rebecca Loud

    I grew up alone, 3 children before me, a brother 23 years older than me and a sister 18 years older. A sister closest to me died at a young age. My parents were elderly (to me), 40 & 47 when I was born. I was so very glad when I was old enough to attend college in another town. I was smothered by my mother worrying about me. I never knew a grandparent (all dead), a sister & brother that loved me, they were jealous because I got more than they did. It was a lonely childhood, even though I had lots of church friend… they went home to their sibling and I went home to an almost empty house. I would not recommend it to anyone.

  • Ciara Castro

    I’m an only child, my parents could only have me. Though I do relate to more attention and getting a lot of stuff, it didn’t make up for feeling of not fitting in, all my life I’ve have trouble understanding others because I can’t relate. My story is a Lil different than most I did grow up with tons of cousins and friends I got along well with others adapted to situations. By high school I had 5 other only children friends , they just understand even though we were still different and didn’t all hang out together. Unlike the other commenters I never minded being alone I was used to it. But being forgotten to be picked up at school multiple times is sad how do you forget your only child lol. Both my parents worked fought but stayed together. I was a good kid didn’t rebel drink smoke or do drugs I was too busy swim team school band and FFA.however I didn’t want that when I had kids I married a man with 4siblings I still don’t get or feel included but my kids sure get it I have 5 and one angel 3 girls, 2 boys they may not have everything but they love their siblings

  • sarflondon

    Beautifully put and well done.

  • P.D.Antic.

    Irregardless !? It is obviously, ( and painfully ), a made up word !
    n.b. English is my 2nd language.

    p.s. bring back hyphenation !



  • responder

    As opposed to other words, which are not made up, right?

  • Jas

    Twat! Nothing better to do??

  • SF1

    “Irregardless” was NEVER a word before, until the Millennials came along. Therefore we had to allow them the satisfaction of using this Non-Word, to keep them from having a Meltdown Tantrum, called “Triggering !!!”

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