Avidan Milevsky Ph.D.

Band of Brothers, and Sisters

Family Dynamics

The Hazards of Being an Only Child

Siblings offer a fundamental and unrepeatable life provision

Posted Oct 06, 2014

As I travel the country lecturing on the merits of a close sibling bond, I am often asked about the consequences of being an only child. Not wanting to be offensive I usually respond with a socially mindful answer highlighting the many achievements of only children. However, a careful examination of what we know today about the advantages of having siblings exposes the perils of being the only offspring in a family.

Throughout the early history of psychological study, siblings have received a bad rap. For example, much of the original psychoanalytic theoretical work on siblings focused on the negative aspects of the relationship. Sibling competition was seen as an extension of Freud's work on the competitive nature of the oedipal triangle. His disciple Adler's work on birth order continued to highlight the competitive nature of the sibling bond. Subsequent work has primarily focused on the negative aspects of the sibling link. Sibling aggression was found to be associated with later delinquency, aggression, dating violence, and marital relationship discord. With all this bad sibling press China’s one child policy seemed somewhat appealing.

Thankfully a growing body of literature on the positive aspects of the sibling bond has painted a more accurate and scientific sibling picture. This shift toward focusing on the positive aspects of the relationship can even be seen in the work of Freud’s daughter, Anna, who highlighted the role played by siblings in the lives of survivors of concentration camps. She observed that survivors drew considerable amount of strength from having a sibling by their side. Other studies have noted that siblings play a crucial role in fundamental aspects of socialization including social understanding, social identification, and social regulation. After all, the first microcosm of a peer relationship exists with a sibling. Hence, what happens in the sibling relationship is the catalyst for all future social engagements. Even the simple appreciation for how family and social boundaries work is learned from siblings via joining with them in coalitions against parents. You learned something very powerful about how the world works the first time you schemed with your brother about how to raid the candy drawer without your parents noticing.

These early competencies learned from siblings have lifelong consequences. Studies have suggested that sibling closeness in childhood is linked with social-emotional understanding, cognitive abilities, and psychological adjustment. During adolescence sibling closeness contributes to healthy identity formation and minimization of teen problems. Siblings can help teens in individuating from parents through modeling, shared secrets, and boundary formation. In both childhood and adolescence siblings may serve as a buffer for those experiencing ecological risk, family distress, living in single-parent homes, and those placed in foster-homes. In adulthood, siblings may offer shared responsibility/negotiation over aging parent care, and sibling warmth is linked with well-being and successful aging. In fact, a person is more likely to have a sibling at death-bed than any other significant person. Bringing all these findings together makes it quite obvious that siblings offer a fundamental and unrepeatable life provision.

My wife and I thought it was remarkable when we had our first child. Although I can’t overstate the profound feelings of joy and responsibility my wife and I felt when we had our first child, a different moment in our life that occurred a few years later stood out most to us in terms of feeling that we truly created something special. When we had our second child and noticed the first time that our oldest daughter was interacting with our newborn it truly hit us that we created something grand: we created a relationship--the beauty of the sibling bond.