John Mac Ghlionn

An only child is a lonely child

A lack of siblings can have lifelong effects

  • From Spectator Life
(iStock)

Lonely children often grow up to be lonely, not to mention anxious and depressed. In one study, after factoring in profession, parenting style and relationship, sleep patterns, and dietary habits, only children were more likely to display symptoms associated with anxiety and depression than those with siblings. One, it seems, really is the loneliest number.

Friendships come and go, and chances are our parents will leave this earth long before we do but, through it all, siblings are there by our sides

The western world is already consumed by a loneliness epidemic. Our falling birth rate and the rise in single-child households likely makes this worse. There is a theory, too, that children without siblings tend to exhibit characteristics such as being cold and self-centered, which is more debatable. What’s not up for debate, however, is the fact that being an only child has profound effects on one’s personality development. Without siblings, an only child is more likely to spend time around adults, rather than children his or her own age. They have fewer chances to enhance their social skills with those their own age and struggle to relate to their peers. Also, without siblings, only children become the centre of their parents’ attention. That might sound beneficial, but it can also be difficult to shoulder the entirety of your parents’ expectations. 

Strong sibling bonds have been shown to increase empathy, social skills, and academic proficiency. They also serve as a shield against things like bullying or parental animosity. Brothers and sisters have the opportunity to observe each other’s actions, the good and the bad, and gain knowledge from one another. Younger siblings frequently observe and learn from their older siblings, while older siblings have the chance to develop responsibility, mentorship, and leadership skills. Healthy sibling relationships foster a teacher-student dynamic. 

The benefits of siblingships don’t end there. A 2017 study published in Social Science and Medicine revealed that children with more siblings tend to have healthier diets and spend less time watching television. The research indicated that for each additional sibling, there was a decrease of 2.6 percentage points in the probability of obesity during early adolescence. Furthermore, various analyses have shown that individuals with siblings are less likely to be obese compared to those without siblings.

Children who have siblings exhibit elevated levels of physical activity compared to only children. In one notable study from 2021, conducted on 161 children attending a preschool in Portugal and published in the journal Children, it was discovered that kids residing in households with siblings tended to possess superior motor skills in comparison to those without siblings. A sibling can serve as a natural companion for play, providing an inherent source of amusement, interaction, and, as the study demonstrated, learning.

That same year, research conducted on latina women in Southern California, which was published in Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, indicated that having sisters and engaging in more frequent communication with siblings correlated with a decrease in depressive symptoms during pregnancy. Now, rather inevitably, some will read this and say, ‘well, I can’t stand my siblings. They never made me happy. We never played together.’ Is it possible to grow up with siblings that make your blood boil, and is it possible that some siblings actually make a person’s life many times worse?

Yes, undoubtedly. However, from Boston to Barcelona, most people who have siblings actually enjoy their company. Although sibling estrangement exists, it’s certainly not all that common. In fact, it could be argued, of all the relationships possible, the one shared by siblings is the most enduring of all. As someone with a younger brother and sister, I can attest to the enduring nature of sibling relationships. After all, friendships come and go, and chances are our parents will leave this earth long before we do but, through it all, siblings are there by our sides. Sadly, though, in much of the western world, sibling relationships are becoming rarer by the day.

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