The Value of Sibling Surrogates for Only Children


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We know definitively that strong, healthy relationships are central to life satisfaction.

The famous Harvard Grant Study that has tracked Harvard graduates for more than seven decades tells us as much. “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period,” contributing editor Bill Murphy, Jr., who wrote an article for Inc. on the study, emphasizes.

So it should come as little surprise that many parents of singletons are anxious to give their child a sibling hoping that they will have someone to play with as youngsters and to turn to later as adults. But that doesn’t mean this is the only option.

“Giving your child a sibling is no guarantee that he or she will have a more fulfilled life,” says Meg, mother of an only child, echoing the sentiment of many other only child parents.

Nonetheless, a significant number feel strongly that their only child needs a sibling to fill the role of a lifelong companion. Ruth, 78, didn’t mind being an only child, but she envisioned having two daughters dedicated to each other as her aunts were—calling once or usually multiple times a day. Ruth lamented,

I assumed my girls would do the same if they were sisters. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be close. Turns out they have no relationship; they are complete opposites. With them it goes beyond not liking each other; they can’t tolerate one another.

Lingering childhood rivalries and toxic relationships can remain and seep into adult sibling relationships, stressing or fraying them. Assuming sibling relationships were solid during childhood, preferences, and lifestyles can still change and put physical and emotional distance between them.

Stand-In Siblings

Parents of only children and onlies know the importance of friends in building a sense of belonging and security. These so-called surrogate siblings are there for them, share life experiences, and often know an only child’s parents and history.

Granted, some siblings support and confide in each other as Ruth’s aunts did. But kids and adults are just as likely to confide in a close friend. Many only children I interviewed for the Only Child Research Project told me that they talked to a friend every day or considered a friend to be like a sibling.

According to the American National Family Life Survey, “Only children report having roughly the same number of close friends as those who grew up with siblings and are just as satisfied with their social lives today.”

In my conversations with only children, I’ve been surprised by how many referred to their friends as sibling substitutes. I was also struck by how they retained their bonds for decades and relied on these friends in the same way other children rely on positive sibling relationships. Only child Claire, 39, emphasized the value of friends who stand in as siblings for only children. “I always had friends over as surrogate siblings, and those people have been lifelong friends.”

Another only child and the mother of a three-year-old only child, Madeline, 41, reported being very proactive in being part of a community and creating a sense of belonging for her daughter.

The community can be religious-based, social or extended family. It’s the people your child trusts and grows bonds with that matter. I nurture those close relationships for her because I think as an only child you need anchoring to know yourself and feel comfortable.

Like other singletons, Barbara in her mid-60s always had best friends. Her parents included her friends in whatever she might be doing. “My best friend from fifth grade is still my best friend. We are soulmates,” she shared.

These kinds of friends become sibling substitutes, whether an only child actually refers to a friend as being like a brother or sister or not. Sibling stand-ins carry a brand of loyalty that can be counted on and usually remains in place.

An only child’s confidant or closest friends can be anyone—a classmate, a peer in the neighborhood, the child of parents’ friends, a cousin, aunt, or uncle—with whom he has had an ongoing, enduring relationship. From the time he was a young boy, Brett idolized his uncle, and as he got older, they shared adventures. To this day, as a young adult, Brett turns to his uncle for advice and camaraderie. His uncle is the person he trusts most.

Family Dynamics Essential Reads

Related or not, it’s the people your only child entrusts with secrets, worries, and insecurities as well as those with whom she shares the fun times and upheavals who are most likely to be a substitute sibling.

Diane, an adult only child in her 30s, told me she made close friends in elementary school and kept them. Those young women remain her best friends. They rely on each other “like good sisters and brothers without problems do,” she says.

Only children repeatedly state that their sibling substitutes are there for them, whether sad or bursting with good news. Like a sibling, a surrogate shares experiences and grows memories together. Across a wide spectrum of ages, stand-in siblings remain valued long into adulthood.

Over decades, the Only Child Research Project found that substitute siblings readily fill most real or imagined voids for only children. The only thing they don’t share with their stand-in siblings is their DNA.

Copyright @2023 by Susan Newman, PhD

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