“Does having no siblings mean that our only child will grow up feeling lonely, at a social disadvantage when it comes to making friends?”

This anxious question reflects one of many negative social stereotypes about only children that can cause parents unwarranted concern, particularly at the onset of adolescence when the time for more social independence arrives. The notion that now worries them is how, without siblings “only will result in lonely,” and so loneliness and lack of friends will likely be their daughter or son’s lot in life. As I set forth in my 2008 book, “The Future of Your Only Child,” I disagree.

The reasons given for this sad prediction tend to be three: much time growing up left alone; parents who are primary companions; and the lack of siblings with who to practice getting along. Although each factor is influential in its own way, none preclude the capacity for making friends and none ordain social isolation. In what follows I am talking about tendencies not certainties since there is enormous variation among only children as well as among the families in which they are placed. With this in mind, consider these three factors one at a time.

TIME ALONE

Sometimes, perhaps out of misplaced guilt that their only child has no sibling company, or out of fear she or he might feel neglected, parents act like they are obligated to entertain her so she is not left to occupy herself at home. In fact, letting their only child have some alone time to create her own companionship turns out to be one gift of being an only child who usually develops a constructive solitary side. Well spent, this private time usually causes the child to develop a great bulwark against loneliness – the capacity to resourcefully, creatively, imaginatively, and enjoyably companion herself. In fact, growing older she can miss time alone when she does not get enough. Learn this self-companionship and loneliness is not usually or often a problem for an adolescent only child who has great strength for satisfying aloneness.

In addition, anchored by friendship to herself, she is not desperate for social friends at any cost, but tends to be socially selective choosing those who are similarly selective, often making friends who share a capacity for self-sufficiency, sometimes with another only child too. Liking time with oneself builds liking for oneself that socially translates into confidence that others will like her too because she know she has a lot of positive to offer. Finally, she is usually proof against peer pressure, unwilling to sacrifice personal integrity for the sake of social belonging. She values herself too highly to do that. Her identity depends less on the friends she has than the person she feels she is.

PARENTS AS PRIMARY COMPANIONS

There is often a difference in the quality of the family relationship (not the love) between parents and their multiple children and the parental relationship with an only child. In a multiple child family there is a difference in standing between “we” the parents and “they” the children, a social separation where parents are expected to have a life time apart from children who are expected share life time with each other. In the only child family, there is just a sense of “we” – the child feeling and often being treated as an integral part of the parental relationship, with an expectation that they are all meant to socialize together.

It is this sense of partnership with parents and social inclusion in their world that creates a primary friendship that is powerfully influential as the child quickly imitates their older ways, becomes verbally and socially precocious, developing adult-like characteristics at an early age. Because the pleasure of each other’s company is so mutually enjoyable, it can be tempting for parents and child to preoccupy with each other and not make room or time for adult or younger friends. Now friendship with parents can be at the expense of developing friendships with age-mates. However, if parents lead reasonably social lives and bring these friendships into the home, the only child can learn by example and interaction a lot of helpful socializing skills.  

A reader response to an earlier blog described the experience this way: “I grew up in a situation where the three of us almost held equal power. The higher level of my parents rarely came into play. I had much difficulty relating to my peers at school. I always felt like an adult among children. Their ‘childish’ antics held little interest for me. By third grade I was involved in making decisions such as which cars to buy and how to remodel the house. I was, of course, still a child but half the stuff other children did seemed stupid and immature.”

Such growing out of step with peers can usually be prevented when an only child is given ample opportunity to socialize with same-age friends, inviting them into the family circle and spending time in theirs, having sufficient play time to maintain same-age social interests and interpersonal skills to feel comfortable in the company of peers.

This said, I believe the quality of the only child friendship with parents, based on compatibility and loyalty and commitment in a relationship taken seriously, can contribute to an adolescent only child seeking significant friendships over casual ones, friendships of lasting value over passing ones, friendships that are more intimate over superficial ones, preferring a small circle of friends to a large social crowd.

LACK OF SIBLINGS

Without siblings the only child does get all the attention, care, and resources that parents have to offer. The opportunity to experience normal conflict, competition, comparison, and cooperation with other children in the family is absent. The push and shove, give and take, speak up and shut up, divide and share of peer relationships must be learned outside the home, and often later on. For example, empowered by a strong will to live on individual terms, the older only child can find it challenging to manage a domestic partnership like having a roommate (at camp or college or in an apartment) with whom one must share common property and space, sacrifice privacy, and have to work out joint living arrangements. However, at a later date these accommodation skills for communal living can be learned.

Without actual siblings, the romanticized idea of missing siblings can be missed. And what is missed can cause the only child to seek a kind of familial closeness with friends, sometimes treating close friends as surrogate siblings in this way. Only children often want and win a close circle of friends partly doing so to create a sense of sibling family that he or she never had.

Most adolescent only children I have seen value friendship, make a very good friend, and make a few very good friends. So I believe that loneliness and friendlessness need not be the adolescent only child’s lot.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, ‘SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Giving Parents and Adolescents Balanced help

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