Alone, away from home

A student explores how only children adjust to college differently than those with siblings.


Freshman move-in day is the first time many students who are the only child in their family experience life with another person cohabiting their space. 

While students who grew up with siblings may be used to living with others, only children often experience a culture shock and maladjustment to dorm life.

Between struggles with anxiety and getting used to living with others, my own experience as an only child made the first few weeks living on campus difficult.

Only child syndrome, a term that stems from a 19th-century study by psychologist G. Stanley Hall, is the stereotype that only children are prone to heightened anxiety, difficulty in social situations and an inability to compromise. Some of these stereotypes like anxiety and difficulty adjusting to constant social interaction have contributed to my adjustment to college.

Only child syndrome, however, has been refuted by many psychologists who found that there is no risk of behavioral and social issues with only children. 

Toni Falbo, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has reviewed more than 500 published and unpublished studies of only children. Falbo found that an only child’s social and emotional skills and qualities are on par with their peers with siblings. Falbo also found that only children may reap some benefits from growing up alone, including heightened intelligence and motivation.

“From my knowledge on the research, there isn’t much of a difference in the long term outcomes regarding the success of only children and children with siblings,” said Kareem Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Temple. “The biggest difference is that only children are less likely to get in trouble and follow instructions, at least in elementary school.” 

The first night I spent in my dorm room in Johnson and Hardwick halls, I woke up groggy and still under the impression that I was back home in my bed. When I looked over and saw another bed, it really set in that I was no longer alone. Although I only live with one roommate, the space we share seemed extremely cramped compared to back home.

My own experience growing up as an only child has made the adjustment to college life uncomfortable at best and devastating at worst. 

As I hugged my mother for the last time before she got in the car for the four-hour drive home, the waterworks started. While the students on my floor were getting dressed to party and celebrate their newfound freedom, I was ready to go back home.

Although I spent a good amount of time away at various summer camps where I couldn’t even contact my friends and family, something about the semi-permanence of college makes it emotionally exhausting, despite open lines of communication with my loved ones. 

My mother and I have always shared a bond that comes as close to friendship a parent and child can achieve. While I’ve spend time away from home for shorter amounts of time, knowing that this is my new home for the next four years, with only brief visits, is hard to digest.

Other students who don’t have siblings shared similar experiences to my own. 

Ashley Lustig, a freshman journalism major and an only child, recalled the anxiety she experienced leading up to move-in day. 

“Being an only child never forced me to be independent,” Lustig said. “My parents 

always did everything for me, so I was scared for myself leaving because I didn’t know how to take care of myself.” 

As most only children can relate, being the sole child in a family comes with the benefits of more exclusive attention and a stronger bond with each parent. Similarly, Lustig said her “mom is like [her] best friend.”

Despite growing up without siblings, Julie Tran, a freshman biology major, said alone time is when homesickness hits. 

“I find that whenever I’m interacting with people it definitely helps with my homesickness and anxiety,” Tran said.

I, too, find comfort in the presence of others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being alone, but being alone reminds me of the times I would spend by myself at home. Except, I’m not at home. I’m four hours away, starting my first year of college in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. 

Moments like those bring my homesickness back in full force.

The past few weeks have been a tough adjustment, but I’ve started shedding my shell and began enjoying being surrounded by a group of people experiencing college for the first time with me. I can’t wait to see how my experiences growing up as an only child will shape me as an adult.

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