This is the concluding part of my reflections on the difficulties that only children – whose numbers are on the rise – can sometimes encounter.  In part one I considered aloneness, the lack of displacement by another sibling, sociality, the burden of parental attention and the lack of sibling dilution of oedipal struggles.  In this part I want to mention some other problems that only children describe.

Rivalry, jealousy, envy and competitiveness

It’s not rocket science to realize that the presence of siblings means that a child will regularly have to deal with feelings of rivalry and competitiveness.  This will be a good preparation for adult life.  Jealousy and envy will also be felt.  (The difference between jealousy and envy is that jealousy is a three-person experience – eg Joe is jealous of his girlfriend’s friendship with Nathan.  Envy is a two-person experience – eg Julie is envious of something that Catherine has that Julie would like).  The only child may not encounter all these emotions so regularly and I’ve known only children who have reported finding some of them (jealousy, for example) to be all-consuming in later life.

An interesting point about competitiveness is that some only children are actually intensely competitive rather than shying away from competition as one might imagine through lack of experience of it with brothers or sisters.


In psychotherapy, ambivalence means having feelings of love and hatred towards the same person.  Only children may well be familiar with that in relation to parents but not in relation to a sibling.  They may miss out on the discovery that, despite these powerful and contradictory feelings, the relationship can still survive.

Aggression, anger and conflict

The rough and tumble of sibling relationships inevitably gives rise to aggression, anger and conflict.  All being well, these things can be played out and worked with in the safe environment of a loving family.  Those who have been only children quite often report that they avoid conflict, are tentative in this area and are vulnerable to being bullied.  Similarly, they may not be able to get in touch with anger within themselves or else fear that if they let it out it will be totally destructive.  As with ambivalence, the presence of sisters or brothers may normalize the emotions associated with conflict and teach the vital lesson that relationships can survive the expression of anger.


Having a sibling helps with establishing one’s own identity, including gender identity.  An only child lacks the opportunity regularly to ask, ‘In what way is my sibling like me/not like me?’  Yet that is important for the reinforcement of the boundaries of the self and for accepting difference.

Mirroring also comes into play.  An only child doesn’t have brothers or sisters to reflect back to them how they come across and who they are.  The principal mirroring may come from parents.  Talking to only children it’s not uncommon to hear them say that their sense of self feels under-developed.  That sense of self may also be inaccurate and they may lack the feeling that they are fundamentally okay as people.  I’ve also noticed that only children sometimes lack confidence in their own judgement.

Discomfort with groups

If an only child has not been exposed from an early age to peer groups (to make up for the lack of siblings) it can leave them with a fundamental discomfort with groups and a preference for their own company or for the presence of just one or two other people.  Only children may feel scared or isolated in groups and find themselves on their periphery not at their heart.  The experience of groups as benign, enjoyable, creative and even therapeutic may be missing, as may the ‘team spirit’ of ‘we’ instead of just ‘I’.


Play is critical to a child’s development.  It contains the seeds of virtually all behaviours that characterize adult life.  To miss sibling play is to run the risk of failing to learn the patterns and signals of groups.  An only child who takes teasing as an insult or who insults while meaning to tease would be an example.  In play we uncouple from reality in order to experiment with identity, roles, humour, fantasy, relationship and much more besides.  We also learn not to take ourselves too seriously – something that only children, in later life, can feel that they do.

Little adults

It has often been observed that children without siblings may behave as little adults rather than children.  Some of those who grew up without sisters and brothers have later described never having had a proper childhood.  This is presumably a result of being exposed within their families to adult parental influences unmodified by the presence of other children.

An interesting antidote

I began this two-part blog by saying that there’s a fair amount of generalization in what I’m saying.  That is true because there are as many shades of experience of being an only child as there are only children.  Nevertheless, research does seem to suggest that there are typical only child characteristics and that these are not necessarily positive.

I’ve mentioned that one way of modifying such characteristics is for parents of only children to ensure that they get plenty of exposure to friends of their own age so that something of the sibling dynamic that is missing at home gets internalized through peer-group interactions.

That’s fine if one is only talking about children.  But if the only child is now an adult and feels that they are disadvantaged through their childhood experiences then is it too late to do something about it?  The good news is that it’s not.  That’s because it has been found that participation in a small therapy group can be of  considerable benefit to adult only children.  Although there isn’t space to go into the details here, the adult without siblings who goes into a group may well find that the deficits that they are suffering can be rectified at this later stage through the powerful peer dimension of group therapy.  It’s not for nothing that, to use a technical phrase, psychotherapy has been called a ‘corrective recapitulation of childhood’.  Or, put another way, it offers a second bite of the cherry.