Middle Child Syndrome

Share

What is middle child syndrome? Is it a real thing? Does birth order really influence our lives and personalities? If so, how do we navigate being a middle-born child? Middle child syndrome is a theory that middle-born children feel neglected in comparison to the oldest and youngest children. This is because parents are often hypothesised to place more attention on the oldest and youngest children (Dodgson, 2017). As a result, middle-born children grow up feeling overlooked and undervalued (Miller, 2018). They may also experience low self-esteem and have a low need for achievement (Ashby, LoCicero, & Kenny, 2003).

The Psychology behind Birth Order

The birth order theory states that the sequence in which we are born into our families affects our personalities. Adler (1964) proposed this theory and emphasised the need to consider family dynamics as an influence over children’s personalities. On one hand, first-born children are thought to be dominant, good leaders and have a higher need for achievement and social approval (Lemire, 2001). On the other hand, youngest children are perceived to be more pampered and prone to experience self-esteem issues. They also may feel pressured to outdo their older siblings. Middle-born children are generally more balanced in their views, with a tendency to play the mediator role in their families. Children’s parenting experiences and parent-child relationships directly affect the above traits attached to their specific birth order. Typically, parents experience high levels of stress and anxiety when raising their first-born child (Passey, 2012). They receive more cautious attention and strive to meet their parents’ standards. Consequently, the oldest child likely becomes more achievement driven to gain their parents’ favour. Conversely, parents tend to spend quality one-on-one time with the youngest child at an early age (Passey, 2012). As a result, youngest children tend to have close relationships with their parents. They develop more complex social skills and tend to more sociable than their siblings. Middle-born children generally grow up with less one-on-one interaction with their parents (Passey, 2012). As such, middle-born children can feel more distant from their family and are less likely to turn to them in times of crisis. In fact, they may feel constant competition with their oldest and youngest siblings.

Navigating the Birth Order Theory

Does this mean that being born into our families in a specific order defines our personality and experiences? Not necessarily. Birth order cannot account for all the individual differences between siblings. Age differences, gender, and socio-economic status (Lemire, 2001) all influence personality development.

McGowen and Beck (2009) argued that psychological birth order has more influence over a child’s personality than biological birth order. 

Psychological birth order refers to the experiences and interactions that shapes a child’s personality and mindset. For instance, a middle-born child who has older siblings can also develop stereotypical traits of an oldest child. Parents may give them more responsibilities and hold them to higher expectations when there is a large age gap between the middle-born child and the younger siblings. As a result, they could grow up to be independent and dominant.

Botzet, Rohrer and Arslan (2020) concurred that birth order had nonsignificant impact on children’s intelligence, personality traits and aversion to risk. Similarly, Rohrer, Egloff and Schmukle (2015) found that personality traits are not significantly associated with birth order. These show that birth order is not always an important predictor of a child’s development. 

As much as we acknowledge the relevance of this theory in particular family situations, it is crucial that we apply it with consideration.

Is Middle Child Syndrome a real thing?

Middle child syndrome can be a real thing in family dynamics and environments that perpetuate it. 

As discussed above, birth order is not the sole factor determining a child’s experiences and personality. An individual can be a middle-born child and have completely different relationships with their family members and encounters in their lives. Not all middle-born children feel neglected and overlooked, as middle child syndrome suggests. However, this applies when the family environment and dynamics facilitate the impression that middle-born children are less valued.

In some circumstances, oldest or youngest children may also undergo such experiences. Even though they stereotypically receive ample attention from parents, this may not always be true. These children may experience neglect and less meaningful relationships with their parents in certain situations. In some families, the middle-born child may require more care. This can be due to a medical or psychological condition. Parents may spend more time watching over this child and lavish them with more affection. 

Furthermore, in some cultures, children of specific genders are more favoured. Parents of middle-born children of the favoured gender may prioritise their well-being and bond more with them. Hence, oldest and youngest children may still experience middle child syndrome despite having a “favourable” birth order. Overtime, they can become more detached from their parents and less reliant on them for support. 

Characteristics of Middle Children

Middle Child Syndrome
Middle-born children are typically expected to possess some specific characteristics. As they lack the superiority of the oldest child and the affection given to the youngest child, they may feel inclined to compare themselves to their siblings (Passey, 2012). This can lead to the development of personal insecurities. Lacking a sense of belonging within their family, middle-born children may establish their identity through external avenues (McGowan & Beck, 2009). This can mean through other social groups, such as their peers. Middle-born children may experience more rebellious phases and are more likely to challenge authority (Collins, 2006Gustafson, 2010). Overtime, middle-born children who adapt well to their family roles can develop good interpersonal skills. Through family dynamics, middle-born children learn good mediation skills and the importance of treating others fairly. Also, as they are likely to seek social support outside their family, middle-born children can hone their social skills. These experiences can shape them into personable and well-liked individuals. Middle-born children also tend to deem their family environment chaotic or discouraging (Gfroerer, Gfroerer, Curlette, White & Kern, 2003). Hence, as they grow into adulthood, middle-born children develop more sensitivity to emotional affect. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that these characteristics are part of a stereotype. Not all middle-born children will identify with these traits. Every individual has unique experiences with their own families and may not relate to these situations in the same way.

What are the Effects of 'Middle Child Syndrome'?

Middle child syndrome can have lasting effects in an individual’s life. Middle-born children can continue experiencing it into adulthood even though their sense of inferiority stems mainly from parental relationships. The influence of middle child syndrome extends from peer relationships to future career choices (Collins, 2006). In terms of peer relationships, middle-born children usually have more positive views on friendships. Due to estrangement from their family, they can place greater importance on friendships than familial relationships. As a result, middle-born children seek to develop quality friendships with their peers. For achievement orientation, middle-born gravitate towards maladaptive perfectionism (Ashby, LoCicero & Kenny, 2003). They associate self-worth closely with their achievements. In extreme situations, it is unhealthy for the child. Middle-born children may also focus on outdoing other individuals’ achievements. This mindset is commonly found in environments where there are high parental expectations. Regarding career, middle-born children tend to be drawn to fields requiring skills of mediation (Collins, 2006). They are more focused on interpersonal relationships and justice-seeking. Therefore, middle-born children usually find employment in roles involved with serving other people.

Middle Child Syndrome in Relationships

Middle child syndrome in relationship
In romantic relationships, middle children syndrome can still occur. Middle-born children can possess specific beliefs around their relationships. For instance, they are prone to experiencing more irrational beliefs (Kalkan, 2008), and holding unrealistic thoughts about themselves, their relationships and their partners. Such thoughts possibly stem from childhood experiences where they were provided with less parental attention. This shows that as middle-born children grow up, they still experience anxiety surrounding their worth in relationships. The above is a stereotypical aspect of being a middle child. If you struggle with your self-esteem in relationships, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. Even you can go for online counselling, there are so many benefits of online counselling. Remember that our childhood experiences may shape us, but we can work through them to lead more comfortable lives. Therapy can be a safe outlet for you to discuss childhood influences and receive professional advice.

Overcoming Middle Child Syndrome

How do we overcome middle child syndrome? Feeling overlooked in the family context can lead to low self-esteem that implicates other aspects of life. However, every middle-born child’s experience with middle child syndrome can be vastly different. There is no one fixed method to manage it.

If you relate to the description of middle child syndrome, try reflecting on how it has influenced your life. Has it affected how you function in interpersonal relationships? How about how you show up at the workplace? Has this created favourable circumstances or difficulties in your life? 

Through becoming aware of how middle child syndrome has impacted you, you can seek out the appropriate resources to address it. One example could be placing too much emphasis on achieving your goals. When you are aware of this, you may wish to look for resources to improve the situation. This can include reading self-help books and even going for counselling.

Middle child syndrome can be tricky to overcome. However, there are many avenues available for help-seeking and developing more adaptive behaviours. 

Preventing Middle Child Syndrome

As a family member of a middle-born child, you may be wondering: how can we prevent middle child syndrome? McGowan and Beck’s study (2009) highlighted a few common themes contented middle-born children experienced. Middle child syndrome occurs due to a lack of parental attention and care. Therefore, helping middle-born children forge strong bonds with family members can prevent this. The common themes that emerged out of the study are:

Warmth and Closeness

  • These middle-born children felt that their families were warm and close. Family bonds are hence, important to them.
  • Middle-born children and their parents mutually respect and trust each other.
  • Middle-born child and their siblings have good relationships. Siblings are seen as dependable and good companions.

Positive Experiences With Having Both Younger and Older Siblings

  • These middle-born children saw the benefits in having an oldest sibling as a role model.
  •  Also, they felt it was good to have a youngest sibling who depended on them for care.
  •  They were satisfied and contented with their birth order.

Less Attention Provided

  • Even though middle-born children concurred that they received less attention than their siblings, they were neutral about it.
  • They saw benefits in receiving a moderate amount of attention, and still had their needs met.

High Parental Expectations

  • Middle-born children perceived their parents as having high expectations for them but were neutral about it.
  • The expectations were manageable and not beyond their abilities.

Good Communication Between Family Members

  • Forging healthy and good communication between siblings is vital to ensuring that they have good relationships.

Middle-born children need to have quality relationships with their family members to feel satisfied in their families. If their needs are met regardless of the amount of attention provided to them, middle-born children can still feel valued. This alleviates the possibility of developing middle child syndrome.

Join our newsletter

Latest mental health insights, tips and news delivered to your inbox monthly

References

Adler A. (1964) Problems of Neurosis: A Book of Case Histories. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated.

Ashby, J. S., LoCicero, K. A., & Kenny, M. C. (2003). The relationship of multidimensional perfectionism to psychological birth order. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 59, 42-51. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/dissertations/AAI3314711/

Botzet, L. J., Rohrer, J. M., & Arslan, R. C. (2020). Analysing effects of birth order on intelligence, educational attainment, big five and risk aversion in an Indonesian sample. European Journal of Personality, 35(2), 234-248. doi:10.1002/per.2285iddle

Collins, C. (2006). The Relationship Between Birth Order and Personality and Career Choices. Providence College. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=socialwrk_students

Dodgson, L. (2017). ‘Middle child syndrome’ doesn’t actually exist — but it still might come with some surprising psychological advantages. Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/middle-child-syndrome-psychology-myth-2017-1

Gfroerer, K. P., Gfroerer, C.A., Curlette, W. L., White, J., & Kern, R. M. (2003). Psychological birth order and the BASIS-A Inventory. The Journal of Individual Psychology 59 (1), 30-41. Retrieved from https://web.s.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=15222527&AN=9974951&h=%2bTLgDmITUVqWPWMt1V9DjBTjlASqdNoHVXRpOls7LAxozdBbT%2fFxqvplIBLUQQYdbv6mfnfyUPVFUFvmyHkXHA%3d%3d&crl=f&resultNs=AdminWebAuth&resultLocal=ErrCrlNotAuth&crlhashurl=login.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26profile%3dehost%26scope%3dsite%26authtype%3dcrawler%26jrnl%3d15222527%26AN%3d9974951

Gustafson, C. (2010). The Effects of Birth Order on Personality. The Faculty of the Alfred Adler Graduate School. Retrieved from https://alfredadler.edu/sites/default/files/Gustafson%20MP%202010.pdf

Kalkan, M. (2008). The Relationship Of Psychological Birth Order To Irational Relationship Beliefs. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 36(4), 455-466. Retrieved from https://www.sbp-journal.com/index.php/sbp/article/view/1726

Lemire, D. (2001) The family constellation scale. Reno: Creative Therapeutics.

McGowan, H. & Beck, E. (2009). A Qualitative Investigation of Middle Siblings. The College of New Jersey. Retrieved from https://joss.tcnj.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/176/2012/04/2009-McGowan-and-Beck.pdf

Miller, Z. (2018). 10 reasons why being the middle child is the worst. Insider. Retrieved from https://www.insider.com/worst-things-being-middle-child-2018-8

Passey, E. (2012). The Benefits and Implications of Birth Order Position. The Brigham Young University Journal of Psychology, 9(1). Retrieved from https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1116&context=intuition