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Is your only child a lonely child?

We have all heard the accusations — only children are spoiled, self-centered, difficult socially or even just plain lonely. For various reasons, many families opt to have just one child.

Only children: The real scoop
Only child with mom

Are they setting their child up for a life where he expects to be center stage, or are “onlies” just as adjusted as kids with siblings?

If you are the parent of an only child, you know the reaction all too well. Concerned friends, family members or even complete strangers immediately offer condolences or pity when they discover your child has no siblings. From concerns that he won’t know how to get along with others to the all-too-familiar belief that he will be spoiled, are these issues real?

What to say to your only child if she asks about siblings >>

Social deficits

One of the most common perceptions of only children is that they lack the social skills of their peers. A 2004 study entitled Playing Well With Others in Kindergarten: The Benefits of Siblings at Home found that kindergarteners without siblings were rated by their teachers as worse in interpersonal skills and self-control than their peers with siblings.

The findings of this study of 20,000 U.S. kindergartners make it appear that only children really do lack the social skills of their same-age peers. Would the same prove true beyond kindergarten and into adolescence?

In 2010, researchers at Ohio State University revisited the question but took a look at social skills in the teenage years, as measured by peers rather than by teachers. Douglas Downey — one of the original researchers — and Donna Bobbitt-Zeher studied the responses of over 13,400 students in grades seven to 12 who were asked to select five friends from their school. “In every combination we tested, siblings had no impact on how popular a student was among peers,” says Bobbitt-Zeher. “I don’t think anyone has to be concerned that if you don’t have siblings, you won’t learn the social skills you need to get along with other students in high school.”

What about sibling rivalry? >>

Parenting styles make a difference

Lisa Bahar, LMFT, LPCC, agrees that only children can be perceived as more self-centered by others, perhaps since there is less negotiation with another sibling, which helps later in life. She adds, “However, if the child is involved with group activities — like sports or dance — there is opportunity to deal with conflict resolutions in those types of peer-oriented experiences.” She believes that parents of only children who are aware of negotiation skills, appropriate boundaries, communication skills, discipline and consistency are likely to see fewer problems between their children and peers.

Self-absorbed or not?

Another key complaint about only children is that they tend to be self-centered. Any parent knows that children will demand your attention be focused on them, regardless of how many siblings are in the mix. While parenting only one child does free up your attention to be 100 percent focused on her, that doesn’t mean it has to be.

Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, Ed.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage. She doesn’t necessarily buy into the argument that only children must be the center of everything. “I can emphatically say that it is absolutely possible for parents to bring up an only child who is completely well adjusted. Parents hold the influence and power to be certain that they don’t end up with a spoiled little girl or boy who grows into an unlikeable, lonely and narcissistic adult!”

Many families are having only one child — by choice or otherwise — and are finding that the myths about them may be just that. Your parenting style and your child’s personality may have more to do with their attitude than missing siblings.

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