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Is middle child syndrome really a thing? We’ll shed some light on this concept

Find out what experts and research says about middle child syndrome

Every child is different, but if you have more than two children, you may find yourself wondering if middle child syndrome is really a thing. There are endless reports and studies about birth order and the various characteristics assigned to those based on where they fall in their family’s lineage. While these reports typically characterize the oldest children as responsible leaders, and the youngest children as indulged creatives, middle children are often the forgotten children.

While no parent wants to admit they treat any of their children differently, there does seem to be a lot of evidence to support middle child syndrome. If you have a middle child, you’re one yourself, or you’re wondering if you should have another child, here’s some information about middle child syndrome that may help shed some light on middle child behavior.

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Is middle child syndrome really a thing?

The answer is yes — and no. According to the American Psychological Association, middle child syndrome is “a hypothetical condition purported to be shared by all middle-born children, based on the assumption that middle children in a family develop personality characteristics that are different from first-born and later-born children. Current research indicates that a child’s birth order in a particular family may have small, subtle influences on personality and intelligence, but not strong and consistent effects on psychological outcomes.” So basically, middle children are treated differently than their siblings, which results in different behavior, but there’s no definitive proof to determine that birth order is the reason.

In 1964, a scientific researcher by the name of Alfred Adler theorized that birth order can have a real effect on siblings. He said that despite being raised in the same house by the same parents, birth order would affect a child’s psychological development. Adler suggested what we mostly recognize as stereotypical birth order traits: that the oldest would be most responsible and bossy, the youngest would be spoiled, and the middle child would constantly strive to create their own place in the family while trying to remain the peacekeeper, according to Healthline.

While Adler’s research certainly opened up further studies into the impact birth order may have on a family, WebMD reports that many researchers still disagree with Adler’s theory, and middle child syndrome is not actually a recognized condition. Still, some suggest birth order can affect everything from IQ to health. A 2020 survey of university students also found that there tends to be a negative preconception around middle and only children, while we tend to think more positively of oldest and youngest children.

Three siblings walking on the beach

What are the stereotypical characteristics of a middle child?

According to PsychCentral, middle children tend to be characterized as:

  • Often self-reliant and independent
  • May develop closer bonds with siblings
  • May feel overlooked or neglected
  • May act out for attention
  • May not feel as close to their parents

We’ve also seen a lot of negative stereotypes associated with middle children that contribute to preconceived notions of being a middle child. Although there have been many studies on birth order characteristics, there are often conflicting results based on gender and age gap, and many studies found that there’s opposing information.

Stereotypically, the oldest is often seen as the most responsible. Since they were the first child, they were doted on the most and given lots of attention. We often associate the oldest children with being leaders, since they tend to take charge at home of their younger siblings. Youngest children tend to be a bit more coddled, which can lead them to have a lack of ambition or they are incredibly driven because they were always provided with the tools they needed to be successful. Middle children often feel left out and as though they’re not given as much attention, as they try to find their niche between their older and younger siblings. Although it’s almost always unintentional, there are some things parents can do to help reassure their middle children.

Mother reading a book to her daughter

How can you handle middle child syndrome?

If you’ve noticed your middle child exhibiting behavior typically associated with middle child syndrome, it’s not too late to act. Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist who believes that middle child syndrome does exist, explained some ways parents can help their middle child feel as loved and attended to as their older and younger siblings. She suggested, in a blog post for Psychology Today, that parents spend quality, alone time with their middle child to ensure they feel they are getting undivided attention.

She also said that parents should make an effort to involve the middle child in conversations by specifically asking them questions and actively listening when they respond. Encouraging their individuality, providing emotional support, encouraging them to speak openly about their feelings, and showing unconditional love are also ways parents can help their middle child feel equal to their siblings.

Whether middle child syndrome is an actual condition or simply a commonly held feeling rooted in a lot of shared experiences doesn’t matter if your middle child is feeling left out. If you think your middle child may be feeling a little excluded or you’re noticing they aren’t participating as much in the family dynamic, try to implement some of the tactics we discussed above. Most parents probably don’t even realize when they’re giving one child more attention than the other, but depending on the age and needs of each child, it’s something that can happen.

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