The month of June sees the birthday of Sir Paul McCartney.  But I’ve been thinking recently more about his fellow Beatle, Sir Richard Starkey.  Ringo Starr was an only child and I read somewhere that he experienced quite a culture shock when he suddenly found himself with ‘three brothers’ in the persons of Messrs McCartney, Lennon and Harrison.  I’ll bet he did.  And it was probably a good culture shock.

In this blog and in the next (for July) I want to think a bit about only children.

Only children on the rise

There’s an endless debate about the pros and cons of being an only child.  But it’s a pertinent issue.  There seems to be a global rise in the number of one-child households.  Some surveys suggest that over 20% of US families with children have just one child while that figure rises to around 40% in the UK.  I’ve seen the general figure across Europe (again for families with children) quoted as a surprisingly high 45%.  Maybe not so surprising, given its former one-child policy, is that the comparable statistic for China is 65.6%.

Some caveats

I need to preface what follows by saying that I don’t want to idealize having siblings.  It’s not necessarily a recipe for happiness.  In some cases, sibling rivalry, among other things, can seriously damage relationships.  Hopefully, however, that’s not the whole picture by a long way.

I should add that there’s a fair amount of generalization in what I’ll be discussing.  But there’s actually no ‘one size fits all’ here and every individual’s experience will be unique.  Nonetheless it is possible to say that there does seem to be a range of typical only child characteristics.

In addition, one needs to ask, ‘What constitutes an only child?’  I’m talking in this blog primarily and simply about those who don’t have siblings but what if, for example, there was a dead sibling or if there is a much older or much younger sibling?  An extra category needs to be created – that of what we might call ‘functional’ only children, ie those whose experience is to all intents and purposes that of an only child (although the fact of a sibling somewhere in their story will have its own psychological consequences).

Finally I would say that if parents ensure that an only child has lots of friends, that can help considerably with mitigating the psychological drawbacks of being an only.  Because the psychoanalytic and group analytic literature on siblings and on only children suggests that drawbacks there are.


Siblings clearly provide company and an opportunity for communication as well as the presence of someone to ask for help.  But only children may often be alone and sometimes lonely and with a sense of apartness.  They may also experience difficulty in finding a voice in company and in asking others for help.


Having a sibling offers the sometimes painful but necessary experience of displacement.  A baby brother or sister comes along and the previously single child finds themselves knocked off their throne, as it were.  A sense of ‘specialness’ is replaced with a healthy sense of ordinariness.  That doesn’t happen with only children and sometimes they describe an enduring sense of being special which may lead to varying degrees of narcissism.

Sociality and parental attention

To state the obvious, siblings also provide sociality whereas that experience may be more limited with singletons.  And part of sociality is fighting for and winning attention when it’s needed.  An only child doesn’t have to compete in that way.  The attention is always there which, paradoxically, can give rise to an uncertainty as to whether one is loved for oneself.  It may simply be that the parents have no-one else to love.  Such dark ruminations can feed self-devaluation.

The burden of attention

The question of parental attention is linked to the fact that an only child gets the full force of that attention whereas siblings dilute it somewhat.  The weight of parental expectations can lie heavy on single children and some report that they never really had an adolescent rebellion.

To the undiluted weight of parental expectations can be added the weight of the parents’ own emotional difficulties and sometimes possessiveness.  Usually too parents will be a lot more powerful than a small child which means that power struggles will often be lost by the child and there may be less chance of enjoying winning them.  Siblings, however, can give just such a chance.

Power struggles link, in turn, to questions of parental criticism and punishment.  Seeing a sister or brother on the receiving end of those things assures a child that they are not a catastrophe whereas only children, with no such comparisons to make, sometimes feel that they are.


Lastly for now, there are also oedipal matters in play.  You may well be familiar with the basic idea that a small child reaches a point in their development where they experience an unconscious (or not so unconscious) desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a resultant jealousy and envy towards the parent of the same sex, combined with fantasies of getting rid of the latter and taking their place.  This ‘oedipus complex’ is resolved when the child, under the impossibility of realizing the fantasy, begins to identify with the parent of the same sex, wanting to copy them and have them as a role model not a rival.

At the same time, desire for the parent of the opposite sex is relinquished and the child is free to embark later on the quest for and a wholehearted commitment to a partner of their own who, this time, will be appropriately available.  The foundations of future sexual relationships will have been laid in the past.  All of this is bound up with separating out from parents, discovering who one is and making one’s own way in life.  Autonomy is the name of the game.

Siblings and Oedipus

Although every child has to negotiate oedipal issues for themselves, the presence of siblings can make things easier.  ‘Allies’ are around to take some of the heat out of the situation and, once again, to dilute the intensity of the parent-child relationships.

There’s some evidence to suggest that only children may be more prone to getting stuck at the (triangular) oedipal stage of development, finding it more difficult to break away from the influence of the opposite-sex parent and to establish their own capacity for peer-based sexual relationships.

Similarly, autonomy may be harder for some only children to achieve, as may commitment.  Instead, enmeshment with a parent or parents may result in an oscillation between dependence and independence, closeness and detachment.

I’ll leave it there for the time being and, in the second part of this blog, I’ll consider some other areas where only children may from time to time run into difficulties.