The Ups and Downs of Being an Only Child

Only children face some unique challenges in family life.

Posted Mar 04, 2020

Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash
Source: Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

There’s a lot of writing and stereotypes about birth order: The steadfast first-born, the often-overlooked middle child, the spoiled baby. And then there is the only child, unique in his or her own way. 

From my perspective, here are some of the common upsides of being an only child:

They often become high achievers and good leaders. Many inherit the qualities of being driven to perform well, and can take charge. And, because they are an only child, they usually have more opportunities to do so.

They are often conscientious. These are the reliable adults who you can count on to get the job done, who have and operate on strong values about what is right and wrong. That said, there can be outliers, those onlys who don’t conform.

But there may also be downsides.

They can struggle socially. Not all only children are introverted, though many are. A cocktail party may be a social challenge. Too much company at Christmas can emotionally derail them.

They can feel entitled/self-centered. The doorway to more opportunities can lead to being spoiled. If parents have only one child to focus on, it’s easy for the child to feel that he or she is the center of the universe. If your parents dote on you, you come to expect that others, even as an adult, will do the same.

Many struggle with confrontation and handling anger. Only children often tend to internalize — hold in how they feel, tend to avoid confrontation.

Family dynamics that drive the downsides

The sources for the potential upsides are easy to see: Only children have opportunities that are not afforded to children living with many siblings where there is less to go around. They also have as their only role primary role models their parents, who by definition, good or bad, are leaders in their eyes.

The question is what drives the potential downsides. The challenge in families where there are several children is that the children are always bouncing off each other, each is trying to find their way of gaining attention from their parents. But what also comes with this are buffers between the children and parents and children and the outside world — the siblings can huddle together and give each other support when they sense a rift between the parents and reduce the anxiety they feel. Your older brother steps in when a bully threatens you at school.

What this results in is going one-on-one with the parents. Lacking the perspectives of brothers and sisters, it’s easy for them to blame themselves for what happens; they may become sensitive to their environment, i.e., the parents’ moods and needs at all times, creating a hypersensitivity. Without the buffers, they take in the parents’ values and points and view whole, which translates into the shoulds, rules, expectations that drive them. And finally, because the parents are putting all their eggs in one basket, they may feel extra pressure to do well.

Helping the only child

Again, there are positives that you want to keep, but negatives that parents want to help the child avoid. Here’s how parents can help:

Provide your child with a lot of social opportunities. Here you encourage your child to step out of his or her comfort zone to increase social skills — to join those soccer games, to go to away summer camps, etc. where they are forced to deal with groups of others, where they have to learn to share and negotiate outside the classroom.

Don’t spoil. To help your child not feel like she is the center of the universe, don’t treat her like she is the center of the universe.

Allow the child to be a child. It’s easy, especially for teens, to feel pulled across the hierarchical line that is important to maintain between parents and children. By passing down adult problems that the child shouldn’t have to deal with, you may be creating a recipe for anxiety.

Reduce the pressure. You can mitigate the pressure the child will understandably feel by backing off and resisting centering too much of your dreams and needs on their future. Allow your child to not have to be the doctor you think she should be or study computers because you feel it is the best career choice. Lower the expectations and pressure so your child can have some opportunity to discover his or her own path. 

Each child within a family has to learn to navigate whatever impact and challenges their family structure places on them. Parents need to do their best to create the right balance, to help each child to feel loved and appreciate for who they are.

It’s the best you can do.