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Does 'only child syndrome' exist?

Mim Shaikh is a presenter on BBC Radio 1Xtra and BBC Asian Network.

Mim is an only child, and says he's been told for years he has 'only child syndrome’.

He's looked into whether it actually exists, as part of a special report for BBC Radio 5 live.

I’ve always been curious as to what makes only children the way they are.

I grew up with a mother, no father, and I was raised by my grandmother. This must have had an effect on me as I grew up, and I am keen to know if other only children are affected in similar ways.

I've heard people say that only children are selfish because they know how to look after themselves, but they don’t necessarily know how to look after other people.

I wanted to find out more about the impact of being an only child. Does it have any actual effect on our minds? Is there any actual scientific proof?

First I met child and adult psychologist Emma Citron. On a comfy sofa in north London, she said there are a few things that spring to mind when talking about ‘only’ or ‘single’ children:

  • Single children have more independence
  • They're used to entertaining themselves
  • They're ‘adultified’, which means they're used to mixing with adults from a very young age.
  • They say they're very used to spending time in their own company, they're rarely bored.
  • They also crave family, they crave groups or communities.

It was quite an intense conversation - everything she said resonated with me.

I think you go into survival mode... which other people perceive as selfish"
Emma Citron - Psychologist

I asked Emma whether this ‘selfishness’, which some people claim exists in only children, is an actual thing:

"I think what you're touching on is a kind of survival instinct, which other people perceive as selfish. I think you go into survival mode," she said.

Emma said that can mean you behave differently, or can seem different to other people.

"I think with siblings you always know that [they're] there for you and when the parents die you've got your siblings to fall back on... but you don't have that...and if other people see that as selfish I think that they should be a little bit more understanding."

So does she think there is such a thing as 'only child syndrome’?

Emma said she thinks there are symptoms and phenomena that we can describe, but she'd stop short of an actual syndrome.

Children in China are often mentioned when talking about only children. The Chinese government introduced a one-child policy in the late 1970s to reduce the country’s birth rate, and slow population growth.

Only children do not have a deficit, any label you try to put on them you could put on the middle, elder or youngest child just as easily."
Dr Susan Newman, author of 'The Case for the Only Child'

That policy has been relaxed in recent years, and couples can now apply to have a second child if their first child is a girl, or if both parents are themselves only-children.

Dr Susan Newman is a psychologist and author of “The Case for the Only Child".

She spoke to me from New York, and said her research findings have been clear: "Only children do not have a deficit - any label you try to put on them you could put on the middle, elder or youngest child just as easily."

She said the labels put on only children are like old wives tales, and she's adamant there's no such thing as a 'syndrome'.

The basis for people claiming 'only child syndrome' exists, comes from a single piece of research carried out over a century ago. A study in 1896 by US psychologist Granville Stanley Hall, 'Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children.'

So what research is currently being done?

Dr Toni Falbo is a Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Texas, Austin. She’s been looking into this issue for many years and has really struggled to find a difference between only children and people with siblings.

Dr Falbo is currently working with her Chinese students on some research, and I spoke to Yiwen Yang and Yidan Wang, both only children from China.

How do they feel about being only children?

Yidan told me she doesn’t feel she’s any different to people with siblings: “Maybe I can have more educational resources because I'm the only child in my family."

Yiwen said: “It's quite normal to be an only child in China so I don't feel different.

"But I feel more responsibility is on me as I have no one to share my responsibility to take good care of my parents when they're getting older and that's of course a problem."

She said she does sometimes feel a lack of freedom, but feels she has a lot of opportunities too.

It seems to me that 'only child syndrome’ is a combination of traits that people want to use to identify only children and put them in a specific category - purely so that THEY can have a better understanding of how their minds operate.

What I've really learnt is that only children are very, very fascinating.

They have something to prove in the world, a bit more ambition, a driving force and they cling on to relationships that mean a lot more to them.

We are all products of our childhood, and if we were only children, that is going to have an effect on the way we handle our work and personal lives and interactions with other human beings.

It reaffirmed a belief that I had that there is no fundamental difference, but it reinstated the idea that only children are unique.

It's been really enlightening to see that there isn't really such thing as 'only child syndrome' - and I'm talking as an only child myself - there was nothing to worry about!

Your Reaction

The topic had a lot of reaction from BBC Radio 5 live listeners:

- I’m an only child, and my father chose not to have more children despite my mother's wishes. I did not seem to miss siblings, but since my mother's death in 2002, I have had to provide ongoing care and have responsibility for, in isolation, for my 92 year old father. It's difficult because I know my mother never forgave him. No brothers or sisters for me to offload or share the remaining issues.

- I am the only child of two only children. I think being an only child has meant that you are driven. You get things done as you can’t rely on a sibling. You also have to take responsibility as you can’t blame anyone else!

- My mum was an only child, I’m an only child and I now have just one daughter. To us, that’s a normal family unit and I don’t think any of us miss something we’ve never had!

- As an only child and a parent of two children, my only irritation is that I have no perception of sibling bonds or emotions that exist between them.

- I'm a parent of an only child having had problems conceiving. I feel guilty and sad although our child has lots of friends it's not the same as siblings. I also really try to make our child independent and not be spoilt. Luckily our child isn't shy.

Mim Shaikh: Does only child syndrome exist?

Radio 1Xtra and Asian Network presenter Mim Shaikh investigates whether it really exists.