The Middle Child

Understanding The Middle Child Syndrome

A child’s personality stems from a variety of factors. Some factors come to them innately, while others are developed out of their environment. Psychiatrist Alfred Adler introduced the concept of birth order and how it can impact personality.  Adler believed that oldest children carried certain traits, as did middle children and youngest children. Over time, both proponents and detractors of this theory have conducted their own research, with some highlighting distinct personality traits based on birth order and others believing that a variety of other factors come into play when determining a child’s personality. 

Adler’s birth order theory also highlighted several personality traits specific to middle children. Because some of these traits can be difficult to manage, the term middle child syndrome developed. While this certainly isn’t a diagnosable medical condition or personality disorder, it is instead a phrase used to describe the traits of middle children, some of which may be particularly challenging to parent. Learn more about birth order theory, middle child syndrome, and effective strategies to parent kids with an older sibling and a younger one.

Birth Order Basics

This theory about birth order and personality isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s one that dates back to Adler in the early 20th century. He first proposed that the changing family dynamic impacts how a child’s personality develops over time. Other researchers have agreed with this concept, but they did not come to a consensus about how this dynamic impacts each child. In other words, researchers don’t always agree on what personality type each birth position has.

Much of the thought around this birth order concept revolves around how each child responds to the addition of other siblings. Adler, for example, contended that first-born children may develop neurotic tendencies after their younger sibling is born because they are jolted by the need to have to suddenly share their parents. Another researcher, Frank Sulloway, noted that first-born children are hardworking and organized but can be more prone to anxiety. At the other end of the spectrum, the youngest child enters the family last, needing to share the parents with other siblings from the start. Parents may treat the youngest differently as well, which can have an impact on how their personality develops. For instance, if parents coddle the youngest child, celebrating him or her as their last, they might be affectionate, especially with parents.

According to theorists, middle children often feel like they fall between the cracks, garnering less attention than their older and younger siblings. Their desire to stand out in the family and to be heard can result in specific personality characteristics. Understanding the middle child personality is the key to successfully parenting these kids.

The Middle Child Personality

Different theorists have different concepts of what traits define the middle child. Often, middle children will offer a blend of characteristics––their personalities, of course, do not subscribe to just one theorist’s description of the birth order. Adler described these children as having the ideal position in the family. That’s because the first-born child might struggle with the addition of new siblings, having to give up the title of only child. Youngest children might feel like they’re treated like a baby, long after the baby years are over. That leaves the middle child, without the resentfulness of the oldest or youngest. Adler argues, then, that middle children, in some ways, have a more easy going personality because, in part, they’re not dealing with some of the struggles that their siblings are. In some cases, their personality is dampened by stronger sibling personalities, making the middle child the quieter and perhaps often-forgotten-about child.

This feeling of being left out is a pervasive concept in the birth order theory. In fact, in many cases, middle children are bemoaned as the child that leaves parents flustered and frustrated. According to Adler, these children often feel discouraged. However, some of their behaviors may be triggered by a desire for attention. Theorists have highlighted a number of characteristics that middle children might possess:

  • Competitive: The middle child might seem like they are always competing for the parents’ attention. This competitive streak is likely triggered by that feeling of being left out. They might see their siblings getting more attention and respond with behaviors that shift the attention––good or bad––to them.
  • Less connected to parents: Middle children might feel more disconnected from their parents. The oldest child is given greater freedom and responsibility. Parents may spoil the youngest and lavish them with attention. The middle child, then, feels overlooked: not old enough to be given more responsibilities but not young enough to be coddled.
  • Rebellious: Some middle children will rebel as a result of the lack of attention. Rebellious behaviors are, in part, attention seeking. They also serve as a way to distinguish themselves from their siblings. Rather than following in their older sibling’s footsteps, the middle child lashes out.
  • Mild mannered: While it might seem contradictory, some middle children end up being the most mild mannered of the bunch. Second kids, for example, follow the guidance of the first-born and may be used to acquiescing to their preferences. Then, when a younger sibling comes around, the middle child recognizes that the baby has more needs than they do. As a result, they let the youngest have their way as well.  

Middle Child Syndrome Myths and Skeptics

The term middle child syndrome doesn’t reflect a personality type or medical diagnosis; instead, it’s a term that is often debated. In fact, some researchers do not subscribe to the birth order theory at all and do not think middle child syndrome exists. Researchers have several reasons to be skeptical of middle child syndrome and birth order personality traits.

While many studies have been conducted on birth order and personality since Adler first introduced it in the early 20th century, critics have found many inconsistencies in the way these studies were conducted. These inconsistencies call into question the generalizability of the studies and how findings can be applied across populations. For example, researchers contend that studies finding definitive characteristics among middle children often fail to consider different socioeconomic groups, size of the family, or age differences among siblings, which can all impact personality as well. Without considering these factors 

Judith Rich Harris is one researcher who has brought into question the long-term impacts of birth order on personality. Harris explains that birth order does have an impact on any given family’s home environment. Each child may display different behaviors related to their place in the family. However, she contends that these personalities do not necessarily have a lifelong impact on that child as they grow into an adult. In fact, she believes that these personality traits are used only in the home and do not affect who the child is outside of the home. Instead, she explains, context––in this case, being in the home environment––impacts the personality of middle children and their older and younger siblings as well. Once that child is taken out of the home environment, any context-related personality traits disappear. They don’t stay with them for life. 

Parenting Strategies for Middle Children

Personality-driven parenting can be an effective strategy, one that allows parents to communicate with and discipline their child in a manner that best suits their personality. Children aren’t one size fits all. They have different personalities and strengths, and they face different struggles. Parents can use this birth order theory to give insight into how their middle child behaves and––even more importantly––why they behave like they do. 

Children who show common traits of a middle child respond well to several effective parenting strategies:

  • Give some attention: A middle child falling through the cracks needs attention. Give it when it’s needed. Attention doesn’t require time or money. It just requires an open mind that allows you to focus on your middle child who may feel discouraged. Whether parents praise a school project, ask questions about a hobby, or even join in the hobby themselves, these daily gestures show the middle child that they care. 
  • Celebrate successes: Highlight the middle child’s achievements as another way to deliver some much-needed attention. For example, take the child out for ice cream to celebrate a good report card or frame a favorite art project and incorporate it into the home decor.
  • Avoid comparisons: It’s easy to compare kids, especially when one is behaving and one isn’t. But, comparisons can be especially challenging for middle children, who might already feel like they aren’t living up to the standards of their siblings. Disciplining is still appropriate, of course, but make it clear that the child is being disciplined for their behavior, not for their sibling’s actions.
  • Set aside one-on-one time: Ideally, every child should get one-on-one time with the parents. This intimate time can foster a stronger relationship. Schedule that time with the middle child regularly. This time can be as simple or lavish as your time and budget permits. The key is simply taking the siblings out of the picture so that the parent and child can connect more deeply and personally.

Researchers may not always agree on how birth order impacts personality and whether that impact is long lasting. However, family structures and sibling relationships can impact each child and how they feel about their role in the family. Middle children who are seeking attention can benefit from targeted parenting strategies that promote inclusivity and relationship building, which can take away much of the stigma related to being a middle child. 

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