“Middle child syndrome” is not a medical diagnosis. Instead, it is an informal term that people use to describe the way that a person’s position within their family has affected their personality.
The concept of middle child syndrome comes from the idea that birth order affects how children develop. Although this makes intuitive sense, and some older studies suggest a link, newer research often fails to find any strong correlation between birth order and personality. In this article, we shall discuss everything to know about middle child syndrome.
Being the middle child may make you believe you were neglected and ignored by your parents more than your siblings. Although you may have personally experienced this, your birth order may only subtly affect your psychological outcomes.
Table of Contents
- 1 Where Did the Concept of Middle Child Syndrome Come From?
- 2 Is There Any Research That Supports the Idea of Middle Child Syndrome?
- 3 Symptoms and Characteristics of Middle Child Syndrome
- 4 How Middle Child Syndrome Shows Up in Adulthood
- 5 How to Prevent Your Child From Developing Middle Child Syndrome
Where Did the Concept of Middle Child Syndrome Come From?
The middle child syndrome originally came from the physician and psychotherapist, Alfred Adler—who developed the birth order theory.
The Birth Order Theory
The Birth Order Theory suggests that the position in which a child is born can affect their personality and life outcomes. For instance, middle-born children tend to have a certain set of characteristics that differ from the first and lastborn.
The Birth Order Theory Has Been Criticized Since Its Inception
Adler’s theory was developed over a century ago and his research has been highly criticized since. Multiple methodological problems have been identified.
For instance, many of the studies that support his theory do not look at age and race. The self-developed questions used in the studies were often too brief, using five or fewer items.
Lastly, factors such as sibling gender, age spacing, socioeconomic status, and number of siblings in the family were not taken into consideration and controlled for. All these variables can affect the results and conclusions of the studies.
The Birth Order Theory in Media and TV
This theory has been stereotyped through various media sources. Some of the popular middle-born television characters include:
- Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons
- Stephanie Tanner from Full House
- Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch
- Malcolm Wilkerson from Malcolm in the Middle
- Arya Stark from Game of Thrones
Is There Any Research That Supports the Idea of Middle Child Syndrome?
Researchers are still trying to figure out how birth order affects various outcomes including personality and health conditions.
The American Psychological Association refers to the “Middle Child Syndrome” as a hypothetical condition because there isn’t substantial evidence that suggests birth order consistently and strongly influences personality, characteristics, or intelligence.
However, there are some studies that looked at the effects of being born in the middle.
Middle Children Might Have More Distant Relationships With Loved Ones
Middle children may have more distant relationships with their parents and family. Three studies were published in 1998 to examine the effects of birth order on self-identity and family relationships.
Three studies showed that middleborns were less likely to feel closest to their mothers compared to first and lastborns.
The results of the first study showed middleborns as less likely than first and lastborns to refer to kinship when asked about their closest confidants. The second study showed that middleborns were more likely to turn to their siblings than their parents in times of distress compared to first and lastborns. The last study analyzed Internet questionnaire results and historical archives. It showed that middleborns were less likely than first and lastborns to be interested in genealogical research.
All three studies showed that middleborns were less likely to feel closest to their mothers compared to first and lastborns.
Middle Children Are Least Likely to Discuss Sex With Their Parents
Talking about sex with parents isn’t something most children feel comfortable with. However, middle children may be the least likely to do so compared to their siblings.
A study analyzed the results of the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. It showed that middleborn men were less likely to feel at ease talking to their parents about sex and receiving sex education from their mothers.
Middle Children May Be More Prone to Getting into Trouble
Middle children are often stereotyped as misunderstood angry kids who seek attention by getting into trouble. There may be some truth to this.
A study analyzed the data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to examine the effects of birth order on delinquency. It showed that compared to firstborns, middle and lastborn children were more likely to have problem behaviors.
Although these studies found significant associations between middle children and personality characteristics, it is still unclear whether a person’s position in their family impacts lifelong outcomes.
A study analyzed large datasets of three national panels from the US, Great Britain, and Germany. It did not show any significant effects between birth order on personality including agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, extraversion, or imagination.
Symptoms and Characteristics of Middle Child Syndrome
According to Birth Order Theory, middle children are in a position that maximizes competitiveness with their siblings. They are neither the oldest nor the youngest so they may be more likely to feel stressed with feelings of insignificance.
Parents often wonder why their middle child is so angry. Middle children are stuck in the middle which makes it easier for parents to overlook their needs compared to their siblings. Their firstborn is their special guinea pig who gave them all their first parenting experiences. Their lastborn is the baby of the family.
As a result, middleborn children may feel jealous and neglected that their parents give more attention to their siblings. This can lead to rebelliousness and trouble-seeking behaviors. They may act out as a way to get approval from their parents and their peers. They may intentionally put themselves in situations that cause problems with authority and issues in their social group.
Their position in the family can also cause them to become peacekeepers. They want everyone to get along, mediating interpersonal conflict and inserting themselves into family problems that do not involve them. They do not like to take sides in the family and will compromise their needs to attain harmony.
Symptoms and Traits of Middle Child Syndrome
Some of the characteristics you may find in someone who is a middle child include:
- Feeling insignificant
- Acting as the mediator or peacekeeper
- Feeling neglected
How Middle Child Syndrome Shows Up in Adulthood
Being a middle child may make you feel more negative about yourself. A study looked at the relationship between identity perception and psychological birth order among university students. It showed negative identity perceptions in middle and only children.
The article explains that middleborn children may not receive the same amount of attention from their parents which causes them to feel like they are not loved, treated unequally, and not taken seriously.
This creates feelings of neglect which cause an increased sensitivity to rejection with beliefs that they are not good enough. They may feel like life is a constant competition with their siblings who are more talented and successful than them.
This leads to increased frustration, worthlessness, self-defeating thoughts and pessimism, and decreased self-confidence. The accumulation of these childhood and adolescent experiences is detrimental to their process of identity development which then manifests as a negative identity perception during adulthood.
How to Prevent Your Child From Developing Middle Child Syndrome
If you have a middle child, it doesn’t mean they will grow up into adults with middle child syndrome characteristics. There are plenty of ways to help your child lead a healthy, happy, and confident life.
- Treat your child as an individual: Your child has a unique set of characteristics, likes, and dislikes. Get to know your child on an individual level and show interest in their hobbies and activities. Let them freely share with you their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Treating them as an individual lets them know they are special to you in their own little way.
- Spend quality time with your child: Take time during the day to give undivided attention to your child. This lets them know you’re not forgetting their needs and wants and that you value your relationship with them.
- Refrain from comparing your children: Refrain from using your eldest as an example or comparing the behaviors of your children. This helps decrease their need to compete for your attention. Appreciate their efforts and validate their emotions so they feel you recognize them for who they are.
- Avoid labeling: Although your child may be acting like a stereotypical middle child, try not to verbalize your thoughts. This puts them in a box, reinforcing their beliefs that they are a troubled child who is neglected and ignored by their parents.
Therapy can help you understand how your past experiences affect who you are today. Therapists can teach you how to resolve conflict, express your memories and feelings related to your upbringing, gain self-confidence, accept who you are, and respect your journey.