Raising an only child

Q. I have one six-year-old son. My question relates to his being an only child. Most of my friends and family have more children and I worry about him feeling different. What are the pros and cons for only children? Are they at a disadvantage? Do they lose out by being an only child? How can we ensure he doesn’t feel different and that he grows up happy?

A. There are lots of myths surrounding parenting only children, such as the belief that they are more likely to be “spoilt”, or to grow up lonely or with fewer social skills than other children. However, none of these are true. All studies comparing only children to children with siblings show them to be just as well adjusted and content as they grow up. In fact, some studies show that only children, like first children, can display particular leadership abilities and academic achievements as adults.

Often the main problem that parents of only children have to deal with is the expectations and beliefs of other people which can lead to insensitive comments such as, “Do you worry that he will be lonely?” or “Lucky you, you’ve only the one, you don’t have to deal with sibling rivalry”. The last comment can be particularly irritating to parents, as it communicates a judgment that somehow you are more lazy or that you have it easy when parenting an only child, when in fact it brings its own set of challenges and dynamics.

Such comments can be particularly painful to parents who have not made a personal choice to have only one child, when circumstances such as starting a family later in life or relationship breakdown have dictated the size of their family. Insensitive comments can be a constant painful reminder of loss to these parents.

The truth is that raising an only child is not better or worse than parenting a larger family. It is simply different and brings its own particular dynamics and issues. Parents of only children can face unique challenges that are not present in larger families. For example, being an only child, your son is going to receive lots of one-to-one attention from you, and parenting can easily become a more intense affair for both of you. Whereas in other families children play with – and learn a lot from – their brothers and sisters, with an only child the parent can easily become the child’s primary playmate and teacher.

While this one-to-one adult attention has lots of advantages for children (in terms of learning and achievement) it can also be draining on the parent, who has to constantly respond to pleas of “Play with me”. Also, your child can miss out on learning to play with other children, where they learn the “cut and thrust” of social skills.

Further, if all your hopes and dreams are invested in one child, this can be a burden on them, creating pressure to behave a certain way or to match their parents’ expectations. In addition, it is easy for parents of only children to become overprotective or overindulgent, doing too much for them or preventing them from taking normal risks and doing their own thing as they grow older.

While the twin problems of too much intensity and overprotectiveness can happen for all children, they can be particular issues for parents of only children.

In my own clinical experience certainly, behavioural/emotional problems for only children tend to be exacerbated by the intensity and overinvolvement of the parents, who often experience greater difficulty in empowering the child and letting go.

Of course, there are lots of simple solutions to the challenges of parenting an only child, such as making sure that your son has many opportunities to spend time with and interact with other children. Encourage your son to develop friendships with children his own age via play dates, pursuing sports, hobbies and shared activities, as well as inviting friends on family trips and holidays. Also, make sure he spends time with older and younger children, so he learns about getting on with children of all ages.

You can do this by developing close links with cousins or friends’ families or doing babysitting “exchanges” whereby you mind children in your house with your son present and, in return, your son gets minded by another family. Nurturing extended family bonds is very important in the long term for your son, so he will have family he can depend on as an adult (when others depend on siblings).

Secondly, encourage your son to take responsibility for himself. Aim to establish balanced daily routines that allow for one-to-one time with you, but also periods where your son is encouraged to play creatively by himself as well as having time with other children. While the temptation might be to indulge his every whim or to do everything for him – such as washing, cooking, cleaning and so on – it is a good idea to step back and to empower him to learn to do things for himself, and to earn his treats and privileges just like other children. Remember this will not only teach him independence, it is also likely to boost his self-esteem and confidence.

Thirdly, be aware of and sensitive to your own needs as a parent. Just as with other parents, be wary of overinvesting your hopes and energies into your son. It is important to achieve a balance between caring for him and seeking your own goals as a person. Make contact with other parents who have only children and discuss with them the particular worries and challenges this throws up, as well as the joys and advantages. Perhaps you can think together how to handle any insensitive comments or assumptions made by other parents.

Finally, remember the particular joys of parenting an only child such as the special opportunity to really get to know them as they grow up, as well as the ability to parent with greater flexibility and often with less stress and more personal freedom for you.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, November 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.