What Is Middle Child Syndrome?
Middle child syndrome is the belief that children born between the oldest children and youngest children in the family are the most disadvantaged, neglected, and overlooked. A middle-born child tends to receive the least amount of attention from parents according to that belief. It is a hypothesis, not a medical diagnosis.
The middle-child syndrome has established itself within pop culture as a widely accepted idea.
But is this a real phenomenon?
Origin and Theory
Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, suggested that a family’s birth order determined each child’s personality traits.
Siblings living in a shared household would have strikingly diverse personalities despite being raised together.
Thousands of researchers have studied birth order traits as a result of Adler’s theory and publication.
In infancy, firstborn children receive more parental care and undivided attention than younger children1.
Lastborn children tend to be the “spoiled baby”. They benefit from parental care and investment that are undiluted by younger siblings2.
Characteristics of The Middle Child
As per Adler’s birth order theory and many studies afterward, the following are some of the middle child personality characteristics or negative stereotypes:
- Feelings of sibling rivalry stemming from less attention and affection. A middle child feels obligated to compete against their siblings to receive their parents’ recognition3.
- Due to a lack of attention, middle kids are insecure, confused, neglected, and rebellious. They are more likely to engage in delinquency4.
- More sociable, thoughtful, responsible, ambitious, and open-minded to gain parental attention 5.
- Not parents’ favorite child, middle-born children are less likely to see their parents or family as dependable sources of support compared to the first child and last child in the family6.
- Lower academic achievement than the older sibling 7.
Does Science Agree That Birth Order Affects Personality
Despite some studies confirming the effects of birth order, others8, recent research like Ernst and Angst (1983), did not find consistent effects.
Based on their exhaustive review of studies from 1946 to 1980, Ernst and Angst concluded that birth order differences were the result of poor research design9.
In 1995, Sulloway proposed a Darwinian-based theory of birth order effects and revived the interest10.
However, a 2015 analysis of birth order studies by Rohrer, Egloff, and Schmukle found no correlation between birth order and extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination11.
Currently, there is still no consensus on the validity of the sibling birth order effect12.
Known Factors That Can Affect Personalities and Outcomes
According to the birth order theory, parents treat their children differently based on their birth order position, thus affecting their behavior in a predictable way.
However, the impact of birth order on parent treatment may not be as large as it appears.
Here are some known factors that can affect the role of birth order in a child’s outcomes.
According to a meta-analysis of studies involving over 14 million twin pairs, both environment and genetics can significantly influence child development and behavior in later life13.
Individual differences in child temperament are genetically influenced. Temperament can affect parenting which in turn influences a child’s developmental experiences and outcomes14.
For instance, temperamental characteristics can interact with environmental and family relationships risk factors to produce a marked increase in child adjustment problems15.
A different cultural background may have a different impact on the expectations of children based on their birth order placement.
In some societies, first-born children receive more respect from siblings. They are likely to have more authority over siblings, more control of property, and more influence over others. These societies also have higher expectations of the oldest children.
In other societies, firstborns are important in stabilizing parental marriage16.
- 1.Jacobs BS, Moss HA. Birth Order and Sex of Sibling as Determinants of Mother-Infant Interaction. Child Development. Published online June 1976:315. doi:10.2307/1128784
- 2.Sulloway FJ. Birth Order, Sibling Competition, and Human Behavior. Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology. Published online 2001:39-83. doi:10.1007/978-94-010-0618-7_3
- 3.Lichtenwalner JS, Maxwell JW. The Relationship of Birth Order and Socio-Economic Status to the Creativity of Preschool Children. Child Development. Published online December 1969:1241. doi:10.2307/1127028
- 4.Sletto RF. Sibling Position and Juvenile Delinquency. American Journal of Sociology. Published online March 1934:657-669. doi:10.1086/216561
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- 6.Salmon CA, Daly M. Birth Order and Familial Sentiment. Evolution and Human Behavior. Published online September 1998:299-312. doi:10.1016/s1090-5138(98)00022-1
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- 9.Ernst C, Angst J. Birth Order. Springer Berlin Heidelberg; 1985. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-68399-2
- 10.Sulloway FJ. Birth Order and Evolutionary Psychology: A Meta-Analytic Overview. Psychological Inquiry. Published online January 1995:75-80. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0601_15
- 11.Rohrer JM, Egloff B, Schmukle SC. Examining the effects of birth order on personality. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online October 19, 2015:14224-14229. doi:10.1073/pnas.1506451112
- 12.Gates L, Lineberger MR, Crockett J, Hubbard J. Birth Order and its Relationship to Depression, Anxiety, and Self-Concept Test Scores in Children. The Journal of Genetic Psychology. Published online March 1988:29-34. doi:10.1080/00221325.1988.10532136
- 13.Polderman TJC, Benyamin B, de Leeuw CA, et al. Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nat Genet. Published online May 18, 2015:702-709. doi:10.1038/ng.3285
- 14.SAUDINO KJ. Behavioral Genetics and Child Temperament. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. Published online June 2005:214-223. doi:10.1097/00004703-200506000-00010
- 15.Stice E, Gonzales N. Adolescent Temperament Moderates the Relation of Parenting to Antisocial Behavior and Substance Use. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online January 1998:5-31. doi:10.1177/0743554898131002
- 16.Rosenblatt PC, Skoogberg EL. Birth order in cross-cultural perspective. Developmental Psychology. Published online January 1974:48-54. doi:10.1037/h0035566