Middle child syndrome: Myth or reality?

Often described as rebellious or introverted, middle children and their personality traits have been studied since the early 20th century

Síndrome del hermano mediano
It is best to treat each sibling as a unique individual, as each has a unique set of characteristics, likes, and dislikes.Image Source (Getty Images)

The dynamic between siblings is full of stereotypes. While the firstborn child is often viewed as the caregiver and the most responsible child, the youngest is often said to be the most pampered, but they also get all their older siblings’ hand-me-downs. But what about the one in the middle? This child is popularly known as the forgotten one, the neglected one, and even the excluded one. The sad truth is that there are many people who have experienced the effects of being the middle child.

“Middle child syndrome is something real, because conditions in some families can facilitate this dynamic to occur between siblings,” explains psychologist Sheila García, a specialist in behavioral and contextual therapy for children and adolescents. The term “middle child syndrome” has its origins in 1912 and was coined by the doctor and psychotherapist Alfred Adler after developing his popular Birth Order Theory. In his research the psychiatrist suggests that the position where you are born can affect your personality and success in life.

His study also concluded that middle siblings share certain characteristics that differ from the first-born and the last-born. According to Adler’s research, the older child would be more likely to develop responsibility and the youngest child would have a greater sense of adventure. For their part, middle children would have a strong desire for attention and rebellion, both within the family nucleus and outside. They frequently mediate conflicts between their older and younger siblings, usually because they feel overshadowed by them. In summary, and in line with Adler’s theory, the most outstanding personality traits of middle children would be rebellion, anger, and jealousy.

But Adler’s theory has been widely criticized. For example, the 1998 report Birth Order and Familial Sentiment: Middleborns are Different published in ScienceDirect, compiled three studies on this theory. The research concluded that middle children may have an even more distant relationship with their loved ones, especially with their mothers. And he added that they are less likely to talk about their intimate experiences with their parents and tend to get into trouble more.

Carried out in 2022 the study Ordered Delinquency: The “Effects” of Birth Order On Delinquency, published in the National Library of Medicine (NIH), argues that the effects of birth order on rebelliousness are completely false, as there are other variables that have not been considered, such as the parental discipline style, family resources, education, and closeness within the family. That is, the level of sympathy, kinship, and respect in the family as important variables.

More jealousy, feelings of abandonment, and insecure relationships

“The first child tends to receive more attention, but also has more insecurities,” García continues, “just like the youngest child, who has more opportunities to learn from the situations and behaviors of their older siblings, but this does not mean that this happens in all cases.” García states that there are many variables that influence how children act, and the position in which we are born does not determine it for sure.

The expert emphasizes that to avoid differences between siblings, it would be best to establish suitable, equitable emotional education with all of our children. We should “know our emotions, know that they are elements that are not under our control, that they are temporary, and that they are not an enemy to defeat. However, it is important to make a place for them in our lives. For example, pushing a sibling or not speaking to them are emotions that must be managed appropriately,” she explains.

In fact, the 2020 research paper Does Psychological Birth order Predict Identity Perceptions of Individuals in Emerging Adulthood?, published in the International Online Journal of Educational Sciences (IOJES), emphasizes that without an egalitarian upbringing the child may not feel fully loved.

In addition, its authors argue that not doing so can also have negative consequences that make the child feel rejected and harbor a feeling of emptiness and abandonment into the future. “Depending on how situations are handled by parents and caregivers especially — as well as other people who are close or play important roles in the child’s life — it will be more or likely that they feel more in no man’s land, that they will (or won’t) show rebellious attitudes, that they compare themselves and conclude that they are inferior, or that they complain more about ‘unfair’ situations, etc.,” the psychologist points out.

While the older brother is often identified as the most responsible, the little one is often said to be the most pampered.
While the older brother is often identified as the most responsible, the little one is often said to be the most pampered.Sally Anscombe (Getty Images)

The APA Dictionary of Psychology describes middle child syndrome as a hypothetical condition. But many children grow up witnessing their siblings receiving attention from their parents, and all this leaves wounds. What guidelines should parents follow to address this problem if it arises?

The essential thing in these cases, according to García, is to be careful and avoid, as much as possible, establishing frequent and very rigid comparisons, such as: “Your sister knows how to read better than anyone else” or “let’s see if you learn from your little brother. He really knows how to keep his room tidy.”

“Above all, you have to be careful. If this comparison usually results in the other child always coming out better, and the comparison is also made very negatively and inexorably with phrases like: ‘They are and will be better than you all their life,’ it is a message that could resonate deeply inside that child,” the psychologist adds. For her, the ideal is to value, enjoy, and share the positive aspects of the child’s behavior, making time — sometimes exclusively — for them to occur.

In short, it is best to treat each sibling as a unique individual, since each of them has a unique set of characteristics, likes, and dislikes: “Get to know your child well on an individual level and show interest in their hobbies and activities. Allow them to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences freely with you. And always treat them as unique, which will let them know that they are special in their own way.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS