US psychologist Alfred Adler developed a theory that linked a child’s personality to its order of birth. Adler’s theory postulates that a middle child in the family may feel squeezed out of a position of privilege and significance. It may even be tempered and have a take it or leave it attitude or could become a fighter of injustice. The middle child experiences pressure from both sides. “He behaves as if he were in a race; as if someone were a step or two in front and he had to hurry to get ahead of him”. (Adler 148). Middle born children according to Adler are the ones likely to develop favorably, however, since they never occupy the pathogenic position of pampered only child (Ewen 96). When the third child arrives, the eldest child retains his status of being the oldest, but the second child has to make changes. He has to relinquish his role as the “baby” to become the “middle child”. This shuffling of roles causes what amounts to an identity crisis and often results in attention seeking behavior characteristic of “middle child syndrome”. The middle child becomes a study in conflict and contradiction. He wants the freedom and privilege given to the oldest and the attention given to the youngest. John Rosemond advices that in order to keep this syndrome at a minimum he should be kept mentally prepared of the third child’s arrival and give him all the attention he desires (Rosemond 66).
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Melina Stoney says: “I was born with a disorder that causes me to experience symptoms such as loneliness, depression, lack of motivation, self-loathing and low self-esteem. This syndrome has caused me great emotional and psychological heartache, not to mention many sleepless nights. There’s no cure and no way out” (Stoney 1). The syndrome she talks about is the Middle Child Syndrome. Stoney feels it’s quite a chronic disorder and can be quite damaging. She says that the middle child does not have a significant place in the family. While the first-born gets praised for being the first at everything and the youngest can get away with murder due to cuteness, the middle child ends up competing for attention, love and a little respect (Stoney 1).
Some psychologists argue that middle child syndrome affects the parents rather than their offspring, claiming that children’s behavior is molded by how their mother and father handle and teach them. They recommend a three-year gap between births because the first 36 months of a child’s mental growth requires extra attention from its parents. Hilary Letts, founder of the Successful Learning Institute in Wirral holds that Middle Child Syndrome can arise when parents stop seeing each child as an individual, she explains: It is easy to say that one child takes after one parent and another after the other parent, but then the other child is not included. She wants that parents should be careful about the younger child idolizing the oldest child, leaving out the middle one.
Research has been conducted regarding the impact of birth order on personality characteristics of an individual. It has been scientifically proved that birth order is positively linked to personality, especially in the realm of traits such as creativity, independence, intelligence, competitiveness, and tendency to be extroverted or shy. Romeo (1994) has found that a child’s position in the family impacts its personality in a great way. He also found that the lifestyles of the youngest children of two different families are more similar than those of the youngest and middle child of the same family. Adding further weight to the birth order theory, Travis and Kohli (1995) have found that intellectual destiny is influenced by the sibling situation into which one is born.
Birth order theorist Morales (1994) opines that the birth order in the family decides the pattern of individual behavior. This is done through impact on personality characteristics. Morales found through his studies that first-borns are given more power and responsibility, and therefore they tend to become more confident and positive. School psychologists Zajonc and Markus (as cited in Bianchi and Robinson, 1997) found birth position to be inversely related to achievement implying that middle children perform less efficiently than first born children. They attributed it to the lack of attention of parents as there are more children in the family. Joy B. Wilson in his research article titled “Birth Order and personality Characteristics” found through a survey that five negative traits of middle child: attention seeking, overlooked, average, lonely, and disobedient. The most commonly listed positive traits of middle born children were carefree, humorous, easy going, friendly, and sensitive (Wilson 1).
David Lester says that the middle child in a conventional family often feels unloved (Lester 128). The older children enjoy all the attention in the early years and are relatively superior in maturity and intellect to their younger siblings. The younger children are the babies of the family and have attention focused on them by others in the family. The middle children often get neglected and feel that they are unloved by their parents. As a result, middle children tend to misbehave and become deviant perhaps criminally or psychiatrically. Leman has said that it is hard to predict how the middle child would turn out to be (Lester 128). They can become quiet and shy or sociable and friendly. As a result of middle child syndrome, the peer group is very important to the middle born child than for other children. It is interesting to note that Osama bin Laden with his network of rebel associates is a middle child (Lester 129). Middle children are good at manipulating, mediating or negotiating. Donald Trump, the fourth born of five children, President Nixon, and President Bush Senior are all middle children who were great negotiators (Lester 129). Lester also says that middle children often keep their cards close to their chest, and can be secretive and difficult to know and they can be mentally tough and dependent.
However, Guy Cooper, managing director of Liverpool based computer technology firm Origin believes that being sandwiched between siblings can have its advantages (Davis 10). They often become brilliant diplomats, having developed strong negotiating powers from dealing with the first-born achiever and the dependent youngest child. They also often share the advantages of both their siblings, not having to live up to parental expectations as much as the eldest but still given the chance to stand on their own two feet (Davis 10).
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Studies indicate that birth order and personality characteristics are interrelated and eldest kids in the family often emerge as strong confident leaders. For example, almost all of the U.S. Presidents were either the first-born child or the first-born son in their families (DeBroff 1). And, all but two of the first astronauts sent into space were first-borns. Firstborn child often gets full parental time and attention. Middle kids often complain of neglect and are resentful of the attention given to the oldest in the family and to the youngest in the family. They often have to compete for family attention with the oldest and try a little harder to be noticed. On the positive side, as parents tend to be much less anxious and demanding with second and third children, many middle children grow up with a more relaxed attitude towards life than their older siblings.
Based on her own experience, Melina Stoney reveals that middle child syndrome affected her differently during different phases in life. Initially, she suffered an identity crisis and had to cope with anonymity. During the next phase, she has to fight for attention. During this second phase she confesses that people paid attention to me only because she was making a complete fool of herself. Next, she suffered deep resentment and anger at the way she was being treated. The more serious phase of the Middle Child Syndrome is the denial phase during which, being the middle child dictates the many choices a person makes in his life. According to her, the number of phases a middle child goes through depends on the person and their willingness to walk in their siblings’ shadows. She declares that while Middle Child Syndrome is incurable, with proper care, “a middle child can grow up to enjoy a virtually drama free life, give or take a few emotional outbursts”. Melina Stoney says middle children by indulging in creative arts can find self expression and an identity. Moreover, she suggests that developing special skills can make them feel unique.
Middle Child Syndrome is the term attributed to a disorder in which a person develops negative traits such as attention seeking and problematic behavior because of their middle position in the birth order. This syndrome can be effectively coped through creative arts and acquisition of special skills and also through sensitive parenting. On the positive side, middle children by virtue of their position in the birth order are relaxed, carefree and great negotiators.
Adler, A. (1931). What life should mean to you. Little Brown Publications. Boston. 1931. Reprint: Capricorn Books. New York. 1958.
Bianchi, S. & Robinson, J. (1997). What Did You Do Today? Children’s Use of Time, Family Composition, and the Use of Social Capital. Journal of Marriage and Family 59, 332-345.
Davis, Laura (2004). Middle-Child Syndrome: Laura Davis Discovers How Your Place in the Family Hierarchy Can Affect Your Life. Daily Post. 2004. Page 10.
DeBroff, Stacy (2006). What are the effects of ‘middle child syndrome’? MSNBC Interactive. 2006. Web.
Ewen, B. Robert (2003). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2003.
Lester, David (2004). Mass Murder: The Scourge of the 21st Century. Nova Publishers. 2004.
Morales, C. (1994). Birth Order Theory: A Case for Cooperative Learning. Journal of Instructional Psychology 21, 246-250.
Romeo, F. (1994). A Child’s Birth Order: Educational Implications. Journal of Instructional Psychology 21, 155-161.
Rosemond, John (1993). Making the “Terrible” Twos Terrific. Andrews McMeel Publishing. 1993.
Stoney, Mellina (2006). Middle child syndrome an epidemic. The Lowell. 2006. Web.
Travis, R. & Kohli, V. (1995). The Birth Order Factor: Ordinal Position, Social Strata, and Educational Achievement. Journal of Social Psychology 135, 499-508.
Wilson, B. Joy (2008). Birth Order and Personality Characteristics. Missouri Western State University. 2008. Web.
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