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It's Not Easy Being the Middle Child

written by: LauraLMSW • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/5/2012

Birth order, in combination with environmental and genetic factors, can shape personality development. Middle-born children often exhibit characteristics that allow them to prosper in the family composition, but tend to be overshadowed by their siblings.

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    Birth Order Impact for the Middle Child

    Birth order theory: The development of personality traits and disposition. Birth order alone is not an exact science and personal characteristics can be influenced by other factors including parenting, gender, time between births, family size and finances.

    However, research displays common experiences of the middle child and the impact on their developing temperament. Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, presented typical descriptions of the middle born children to be:

    • Mediator
    • Compromising
    • Diplomatic
    • Avoids conflict
    • Independent
    • Loyal to peers
    • Many friends
    • Mavericks
    • Secretive
    • Unspoiled

    These traits may have resulted due to their familial placement and experiences. Middle born children may develop enhanced skills to mediate and compromise due to their position between two siblings. When conflict exists between the older and younger sibling, the middle child may feel stuck between the two, which is literally true when considering birth order, and he or she may attempt to be the peacemaker to make their own existence less stressful and burdened by the siblings.

    Dr. Lucile Forer, author of The Birth Order Factor, said that the social graces of a second child who is the middle of three are forged in an atmosphere of competition with the older sibling and complicated by a new competitive situation when a younger child is born. It is for this reason that middle children are often independent, loyal and social. They must be in order to develop a sense of self. Middle born children may avoid being lost in the shuffle and stand out from their siblings by carving out unique spots for themselves in the family (Krohn, 2000). The keyword is “may" and not all middle born children are supported by strengths, internal or external, that allow them to be resilient.

    Parenting the middle child requires an understanding of perspectives and struggles often associated with that birth order placement. The middle child’s search for identity may be difficult because he must continuously struggle for parental approval, affection, and a place in the family (Forer, 1976).

    Parents may fail to recognize that a middle child is suffering due to their natural tendency to not share feelings and opinions in order to avoid confrontation. Middle children often feel left out, ignored, insulted, and not special while growing up (Leman, 1985).

    Due to a lack of confidence they often also embarrass easily. Children born between siblings may not know where their place in the family is or what importance they have within the family system.

    Leman (1985) said middle children feel they were born too late to get the privileges and special treatment the first-born seemed to inherit by right and were born too soon to strike the bonanza that many last-borns enjoy which is having the parents lighten up on discipline. They may see numerous injustices while they internalize feelings of being an oversight.

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    How Middle Children Cope

    Middle-born children have unconscious means of coping with their position in the family. Second children are known for going in exactly the opposite direction from the first-born in the family and to counter feelings of rootlessness the middle child may become a bit of a free spirit (Leman, 1985).

    Middle children often seek belonging outside of the home within their peer group. Leman said that middle children are tired of being told, ‘You’re too young,’ when they seek the same privileges as the oldest, and weary of hearing, ‘You’re too old,’ when they whine for a little TLC like that given the youngest. The middle child goes where he is ‘just the right age’- to his peer group.

    They often are very social as they search for relationships that help them to feel special, a feeling often lacking at home for middle born children. It is for this reason that teenage middle born children may gravitate to a gang like social circle where closeness is guaranteed and valued.

    This commitment and loyalty sought out by middle children can be both a blessing and a curse for it is not easily penetrated. Others may take advantage of middle children if they remain devoted while hiding their own needs and desires as they often do to keep the peace. Studies have shown that middle children are the most secretive of all birth orders so they may not choose to confide in many people, which can backfire due to a lack of open and honest communication (Leman, 1985).

    Middle children may compromise themselves in order to sustain and protect friendships. The desire to belong and feel connected with others outside of the family can also shape the lifestyle of middle born adults. Leman (1985) said that because of the early search for friends and recognition outside the home while growing up middle children may be the ones who move away from the family in adulthood. Their sense of belonging and commitment may not be as closely associated with family as that of their siblings.

    Parenting middle children will be an easier process if the typical ways of relating to peers are understood by parents. Leman (1985) said that middle born children often hang out more with their peer group than does any other child in the family and that’s not surprising because middles often feel like fifth wheels who are out-of-place and misunderstood at home or like some kind of leftovers that always get bypassed and upstaged by the younger or older siblings.

    As a result of these feelings and experiences, middle children tend to have strengths such as independent characteristics and mental toughness, which they can use to their benefit or detriment. Middle children are the last to seek the services of helping professionals such as psychologists, counselors or ministers (Leman, 1985). This should not come as a surprise due to the tendency to be secretive and embarrassed by the need to ask for help.

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    How Parents Can Foster Their Middle Child's Personal Growth

    Parents need to increase their awareness of the traits that their middle born children relate to as well as notice how their familial interactions may influence the middle child. Introductions of family members can innocently diminish the perceived value of middle children if they include qualifiers for all the children but the middle one.

    For example, stating which is the oldest, the only boy or girl, and finally the youngest may leave out the middle child and fail to recognize their role as important. Krohn (2000) said that in some families the parents expect their middle born children to basically take care of themselves.

    Parents often know that the middle child is capable of being responsible and self-sufficient, but that doesn’t mean that they should always have to be, especially when they already experience other pressures such as following in the first-born's footsteps. Parents need to make it clear that they do not need to replicate the elder’s successes and help them to cherish their individuality.

    Leman (1985) offers many suggestions including giving middle children special alone time with parents, room to share feelings with times set aside just to talk, exclusive territory, and new items of their own. An example of exclusive territory is the ability to watch a favorite television show without interruption by siblings. This acknowledges that their preferences and interests matter and are valued by the family.

    Middle children often receive a plethora of hand-me-downs, which is both practical and economical but doesn’t allow for individuality or create special feelings. A good children’s book to help address birth order with children that acknowledges the positives and differences of each place in the family is The Birth-Order Blues by Joan Drescher.

    Beth, the middle child in the book, identifies with hand-me-downs by saying that being in the middle means she gets her brother’s hand-me-down bike instead of a new one. She also described being in the middle like being the bologna hidden in a sandwich or the hole in the donut and that people don’t look up to you like they do with the oldest or say you’re cute like the littlest; you’re just plain in the middle. Positively, Beth also acknowledges that the good thing is that you get to be older and younger at the same time; sometimes I’m the little sister, and sometimes I’m the big sister.

    Parents need to support their middle children, which means asking for and accepting their opinions and allowing them to make their own decisions when possible (Leman, 1985). In order to successfully communicate with middle born children, parents may have to emphasize that they should feel free to express themselves without fear and that they are not going to get in trouble. It is important to develop and maintain supportive family relationships in case the friendships that are so heavily relied on fail.

    Parents should strive to make home a safe haven that is unconditional in comparison to society outside. Family pictures, which depict the system in which a middle child may feel lost, should honor each member equally. Families typically take thousands of pictures of the first-born and the novelty has often worn off by the time that second children are born.

    The camera may reappear for the baby of the family, which results in a hole in the family composition picture. It is important to capture pictures of the middle child alone as well and not always with siblings (Leman, 1985). Pictures solely of the middle child communicate pride and value for that child which may be lost in the daily interactions of family life. They help to reaffirm the child’s identity and self-worth.

    Finally, it is important to note that despite the challenges they face, middle children can thrive off of their experiences and family placement. Leman said that middle children are far less likely to be spoiled and therefore, tend to be less frustrated and demanding of life so the typical hassles, irritations, and disappointments of being a middle child are often blessings in disguise. With parental guidance, acknowledgement and support, middle born children can overcome obstacles and feel special in their birth order.

References

  • Drescher, J. (1993). The Birth-order Blues. New York: Viking.

    Forer, L. (1976).  The Birth Order Factor. New York: David McKay Company, Inc.

    Krohn, K. (2000).  Everything You Need to Know About: Birth order. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.

    Leman, K. (1985).  The Birth Order Book: Why you are the way you are.  Michigan: Revell.