Family dynamics: Do siblings make a difference?

The CSO states that from the last census taken, the amount of children an average household has is between one and two. There are more and more couples in Ireland only having one child. There’s a variety of reasons for this; whether it be economical, age, fertility issues, or it could simply be that they only want one child. What is the difference in family dynamics between a one-child family and a family with siblings? Does having siblings increase social skills? Are only children more successful? Let’s take a look and try to debunk some of these statements.


Let’s look at personality first. We’ve all heard people saying they suffer from ‘middle child syndrome’ but a study shows that having siblings may affect children’s personality even more than parents do. Often, siblings are your first friends, they teach you how to share and compromise, so there is no doubt that they have an impact on your personality. The study also shows that siblings tend to be more empathetic, caring, and generous than their only-child counterpart. Another study shows the importance of having different gender siblings. In this study, it revealed that having a sibling of the opposite-sex helped them in their romantic life as they were able to converse smoothly with people of the opposite sex.

There is also the old adage that birth order affects your personality. A quick google search shows thousands of results either debunking or agreeing on whether it does affect your personality. According to Alfred Adler, the founder of individual psychology, birth order leads to differences in siblings. Yet a study done by scientists in the 21st century that analysed transnational data and compared different families with each other has found the effect of sibling succession on personality disappears entirely.

While the order in which you were born might not affect your personality overall, having siblings, in general, has a major impact on it. Which brings us to the next topic: Only child syndrome.

Only child syndrome

Just like ‘middle child syndrome’, only child syndrome is something that is regularly said but what does it mean? Well, the most common interpretation for it is a child that is spoiled, selfish, maladjusted, bossy, and lonely. It’s a harsh view of children without any siblings but is there any truth to it? The short answer is that there is and there isn’t. It was E. W. Bohannon from Clarke University in Massachusetts that first established this bias. In A Study of Peculiar and Exceptional Children, Bannon detailed the results of a questionnaire that was filled out by 200 test subjects. Of the 200, 196 of the participants described children without siblings as spoiled. Bohannon and his colleagues agreed and the idea took hold.

All this data was compiled in the 20th century. There was another study done in the 21st century that showed these results are not accurate in the slightest. Only children do not grow up with any defects from not having siblings and one study even showed that the only difference was that only children had stronger bonds to their parents. 

Only child syndrome in general can apply to anyone. There are many people with siblings that are as spoilt as some only children. One truth of only child syndrome is that many only children stated in another study that they were lonely growing up and often wished they had siblings to play with.

The pressure of having siblings

Having siblings can cause competition between the children, especially if they are around the same age. There are many examples of parents pitting one child against the other, especially in terms of grades and overall success. Simply sitting the Leaving cert has siblings competing to get more points than the other. This pressure mostly comes down to the parents as they impose certain labels their children from a young age. Putting the firstborn at the ‘scholar’ while the middle child might be the ‘athletic’ one and the youngest the ‘creative’ child. By doing this it puts those children into a box they might not identify with. Just because the middle child is into sports does not mean they cannot excel academically.

Now, it is unfair to say all parents are like this because they are not. Like with everything some don’t agree with it. Yet, the overwhelming majority do. The parents that do this tend to see their children being protective of their ‘thing’. If one is good at football, the child might beg their parents not to let their siblings join the team in case they’re better than them.

The best way to avoid this in siblings is to stop labelling. Let the children figure out their strengths and encourage them but never pit them against one another. It can lead to bitterness and jealousy among siblings which you want to avoid. Let the siblings help one another so that it builds their confidence.

The pressure of being an only child

While only children do not have to compete with their siblings, they might just have a tougher role. They have both of their parents’ undivided attention which means instead of the parent dividing out the strengths into different children, the only child is expected to be the scholar, the athletic one, and the creative child. This can put serious pressure on that child as they feel the need to excel in all walks of life. Again, this is not all parents. Many parents don’t even realise they are doing this or the pressure that their child is under.

There are many false studies out there that state only children are more successful than children with siblings, however, for each one saying that there is another 10 saying the opposite. While only children do score higher in flexibility which is a marker of creativity, it does not necessarily mean that they will be more successful.

The misconception is that because only children have their parents’ full attention, they are more successful than children with siblings. From looking at countless studies it seems that success is down to the individual, not their siblings, or lack thereof. A persons’ personality plays a major role in their success. Now onto the main question, do siblings make a difference?

Do siblings make a difference?  

In certain aspects of a child’s life, they might make a difference, such as learning social skills from a young age, always having a companion and someone to play with, and learning how to share from a young age. In other aspects, it doesn’t make a difference because all children have some sort of pressure put on them, whether they have siblings or not. Being successful is not dependent on your siblings or your parents but some might say the skills you learn from your siblings do make a difference. The conclusions from the different studies seem to indicate that everyone goes through their own unique experience in childhood that shapes them into the person they are. Having siblings or being an only child does play into that but it is not a defining point of a child or a marker of their success.

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Katie Boland
Katie Boland

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