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Bringing up an only child - Q and A with Dr Bernice Sorensen

Having just one child in the family is becoming more and more common, whether by choice or by circumstance. Parents often worry that an only child may be affected by not having brothers and sisters, and may have concerns about the stereotypical image of an only child as spoilt and selfish. We spoke to Dr Bernice Sorensen, a psychotherapist and an expert in this field, who has answered our questions about bringing up an only child.

Do you think sibling rivalry and bullying is really always such a problem for children who have siblings?

Sibling rivalry has an evolutionary place to encourage each sibling to find a place for itself in the family and society. Rivalry is not the same as bullying and whilst rivalry is normal and gives opportunities for both emotional and social development, bullying is counter productive and is a result of poor communication and social skills. I think only children miss out on the socializing effect siblings potentially can have but obviously if this is allowed to develop into bullying this is not an opportunity worth having.

Are there other advantages to being an only?

The greatest advantage is the economic one, which in the present climate is obviously important. However some of the other so-called advantages, such as those concerning parental attention, are less well founded. Whilst parents may like to think that not having to share their attention with other children is beneficial to their only child, my own research has not shown this to be the case. The recipient of all that attention - the only child themselves - can experience the undivided attention of a parent as intrusive leading them to feel overly scrutinized and claustrophobic.

Whilst many of the only children who write to me are happy about their experiences and have appreciated extra finance available to them in terms of education, sports etc, they have also felt they have lost out in other ways. More significantly as only children get older the lack of siblings can have a greater effect, particularly when parents die and they no longer have anyone who is a witness to their life.

Is it true that only children are often higher achievers?

There is some evidence that they are higher achievers in education and work, similar to first children, as they tend to be more responsible, compliant, and more motivated to succeed. But there is also evidence that children with siblings learn more because they have opportunities to speak to siblings, play with them, learn from them and generally interact in a way which helps with speech, motor skills, reading and reasoning. These opportunities for developing social and emotional skills are often lacking in only children simply because they do not have the place to develop them in the context of safe environment - the family. School is the obvious substitute but it can be very traumatic for only children who have had little experience or help with interacting with children of their own age.

The stereotype of an only child is often rather negative as they are seen as being spoilt and selfish - is there any truth in this?

As stereotypes do have a level of truth embedded in them, I think it is true to some extent especially when seen from a sibling perspective. Only children may appear spoilt simply because they have more opportunities and more 'things' than sibling children. They may appear selfish because they automatically see the world from their own perspective as they have not had the opportunity to see it in any other way. They have missed out on the typical squabbles over learning how to share with a sibling. So when the last piece of cake is on the plate, they probably think it's theirs because that how it always was!

However the fear of being seen as selfish or spoilt is enormous for both the parent of an only child, and the only child. The parent wants to ensure the child is NEVER spoilt and could NEVER be accused of being selfish. And the only child too usually dreads those labels being given to them. This can be very destructive to the child's self-esteem and engenders in many only children a fear that these negative stereotypes will be attached to them.

Do only children tend to find it difficult to make friends?

In my experience only children can be extremely good at making and keeping long-term friendships, perhaps as a way of having a substitute sibling. However at the other end of the spectrum I know of many who have had a very overprotected childhood which did not offer them opportunities to mix with other children. They have become loners, avoiding social contact simply because they never felt they have learned the rules of the game of social interaction.

Do only children long for a brother or a sister?

My research indicated that many do, but that they also have overly positive fantasies of what having a sibling entails. Others wanted a sibling, when they were young, but when they saw the realities of their friends' siblings they changed their minds. I think it is quite normal for all of us to wonder about 'what might have been if'.

Similarly people with siblings have very positive fantasies of what it would be like to be an only child, which are equally unrealistic. I would say there is envy on both sides - from those who are onlies who would have liked a sibling and those who have siblings they do not get on with, or who felt they did not get enough of their parents' attention, and longed to be an only child.

Only children inevitably spend more time alone - do you think this makes them lonely?

Personally I did not really know what 'lonely' was as a child. When you are alone so much of the time it becomes normal. Now as an adult I can identify that feeling of both lonely and alone, but as a child it was just the way I was and I enjoyed my own company. I loved playing with other children but inevitably it was only some of the time when I was allowed out in the street, to have friends home for tea, or see my cousins. I think aloneness and loneliness become stronger as you get older and particularly when your parents are dead and children have left home. But being on my own and enjoying my own company is something I think only children develop in early life and I consider a strength.

People sometimes say they can spot children who are 'onlies' fairly quickly by their characters - can you really do this?

Yes! But that's because I am one and it is quite common for us onlies to spot each other - that is not a bad thing. It's something about the experience of being brought up without siblings which is different, and someone who has had that same experience can notice this. It's the way we see the world, the way we interact, the way we often seem so confident, but the telltale signs are there in the body language masking the question: 'Do I really know the rules of the game?'

Parents often worry about having an only child, and whether this might cause problems for them - would you have any tips for parents of only children?

I receive a lot of mail from parents who have only one child and feel they are being pressurised into having more. They are often labeled selfish and are made to feel they are doing a terrible thing. Bringing up a child, with or without siblings, is a challenging experience and we can get it right or wrong either way. Having more children does not guarantee happiness for anyone. Having an only child has its own challenges both for parents and the child. Ultimately I think it's best to have the number of children that suits you. The problems only children can experience can easily be counteracted by ensuring they are not over protected and have lots of opportunities to interact with other children. I would never encourage anyone to have a second child just to give the first one a brother or sister.

Here are my Fifteen Tips for Parents

  1. Don't overcompensate with too many 'goodies'. Only children have to put up with enough envy without making it worse.
  2. Don't tell your child you are not going to spoil them because you will probably making them feel they are loosing out. You are also making the negative only child stereotype their problem - just don't overindulge on a regular basis.
  3. Let them be a child and don't expect them to be a little adult. Some popular books for parents of onlies do encourage that behavior - I disagree as I believe they need to be children with other children.
  4. Don't tell them they are lucky not to have a sibling even it you believe it. It may be true for you but don't assume your child has the same feelings.
  5. Make sure your child has plenty of children to play with and to stay with and let them do these things, without you, from an early age.
  6. Encourage them to join groups etc.
  7. Make sure they go to co-educational schools.
  8. Don't overprotect or expect too much independence too early.
  9. Don't expect them to fulfill your thwarted ambitions
  10. Make a big effort to let them separate from you psychologically and this may also mean financially as they get into their teens.
  11. Ensure you do not become enmeshed with your child and don't assume their needs are the same as yours.
  12. Remember your child will be much more sensitive to your needs than you may imagine so let them know you have a life outside of them. Parents with more than one child can more easily diffuse this sense of their needs being met by their children.
  13. Make your child wait for things or you will set up expectations of instant gratification which can be hard for them to unlearn once they have relationships.
  14. Teach them how to share - not with you, but with other children.
  15. Don't encourage them to be the centre of attention - it can be very painful when they go out into the real world.

About Dr Bernice Sorensen

Dr Bernice Sorensen is a psychotherapist and has worked in education, the health service and private practice for over 30 years. She has researched the experiences of adult only children and published her research in her book 'Only Child Experience and Adulthood'. An only child herself, she is married to an only, and they have four adult children between them. She has set up two websites to support adult onlies and to share some of her research: and which is a forum for people to talk, support each other and share their experiences

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