Middle Child Syndrome

Although middle child syndrome is often said to be little more than a myth, many people identify with its effects linked to birth order. In the following article, we explain more about this topic.
Middle Child Syndrome
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

For some people, middle child syndrome is little more than an urban myth. For others, it’s an obvious reality. The truth is that growing up in a family in the middle position isn’t always easy. Often, the older sibling symbolizes the figure on whom all the positive reinforcements are placed, while the little one is fussed over and pampered.

It was the psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, who introduced the syndrome of the middle child, highlighting how these siblings perceive their position in the family unit in a more complex way. According to Adler, they usually feel somewhat neglected and alone and develop a particular personality. However, what’s true and false in this perspective? Find out here.

The fact that fewer children are being born today means that middle child syndrome appears less frequently. However, those who grew up in a family with several siblings often state that they suffered from this condition.

Middle child syndrome

Middle child syndrome refers to the experience of neglect that some children feel because of their birth order. Apparently, some of them watch with annoyance how their older and younger brothers receive all the reinforcements and care.

Since Alfred Adler first introduced this concept in his book, Problems of Neurosis (1964), the subject has attracted tremendous interest. Yet, it’s not a psychological condition or disorder registered in the DSM-V. Indeed, although science has been investigating this issue for years, there’s not always strong support for the theory.

One example is a recent study published in Heliyon, which concluded that the order of birth doesn’t have an impact on a child’s way of relating to the dynamics of the family. But, beyond the scientific literature, in everyday reality, some people do identify with this perspective. Let’s review the factors and evidence in this regard.

You might like to read The Different Types of Siblings

Middle children show a certain distance from their parents

One of the first investigations into middle child syndrome appeared in 1998 in the Official Journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. This study highlighted that being a middle sibling could affect the parental bond. Moreover, it was demonstrated that, when it comes to seeking support, some children prefer their own siblings to their parents.

It was also evidenced that, on average, the affective closeness they felt toward their mothers wasn’t at the same level as their older and younger siblings; that of the latter was more significant. This can be summed up by the fact that birth order affects attachment and interaction with parents.

However, it should be noted that this study hasn’t been revisited and there’s no updated data available.

Middle child syndrome outlines a different personality

Clinical psychology gives great relevance to parenting dynamics and the concept of attachment. Middle child syndrome suggests that these figures don’t receive as much emotional attention as the other siblings. And, if the psycho-affective experiences are irregular, it’s possible that this affects the child’s behavior and personality.

The traits and characteristics that define the individual raised in a context with these dynamics are as follows:

  • Competitive and rebellious personality. The middle child grows up needing to compete with their siblings for parental attention. This sometimes outlines a more rebellious and skillful character in terms of competitive behavior.
  • Good social skills. Often, the middle child’s attempt to approach adults for attention facilitates the early development of assertiveness, good communication, and negotiation skills.
  • The weight of jealousy and stress. Middle child syndrome defends the idea that, in general, it’s the older and younger siblings who become the favorites of the parents, encouraging experiences of jealousy and emotional suffering in the middle child.
  • They tend to take risks. The fact that the parents pay more attention to the other siblings means the middle child is freer to engage in risky behaviors. This lack of supervision reinforces in them a more exploratory and risky spirit.
  • Independent and decisive. The journalist, Katrin Schumann, in her book, entitled The Secret Power of Middle Children (2011), suggests that growing up in a scenario where being in the middle means receiving fewer reinforcements could be an advantage. In fact, she claims that middle children may become more independent, decisive, and creative.
  • Perception of abandonment and loneliness. Growing up witnessing that the other siblings take almost all their parents’ attention leaves scars. For example, a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine argues that older siblings tend to exhibit perfectionist traits due to parental pressure.

Some adults who grew up as middle siblings develop problems establishing safe relationships.

Sensitivity to rejection in adulthood and insecure relationships

Sometimes, the middle child develops in a complex environment, lacking parental recognition and support. Thus, they grow up witnessing that their other siblings receive greater amounts of affection, security, and attention. This has an impact on them as an adult.

An investigation published in the International Online Journal of Educational Sciences states that an unequal education in which the child doesn’t feel fully loved has consequences The most evident characteristic is the constant fear of being rejected. As adults, these individuals are afraid of experiencing the same affective experiences as in their childhood. Undoubtedly, this anguish damages their interpersonal relationships.

We can link this last reality to attachment theories from the field of clinical psychology. For example, the University of Minnesota (USA) highlights how a more vulnerable upbringing lacking in secure emotional bonds increases the risk that any romantic relationships in adulthood will be approached from an anxious or insecure attachment style.

You might be interested to read Resignation Syndrome in Children

How to prevent middle child syndrome

If you’re still wondering if middle child syndrome really exists, we can confirm that there’s no conclusive data. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary describes it as a hypothetical condition.

Despite this fact, discriminatory upbringing and education in terms of care and affection do sometimes lead to the appearance of certain effects such as those we’ve described. It’s also been verified that birth order mediates dimensions such as intelligence.

The journal, PNAS published an article specifying that older siblings have higher scores in intelligence. This could be associated with a greater number of reinforcements and attention from their parents.

If we want our children to grow up happily, with the same potential and the best opportunities, it’s important not to neglect any of them and to give them all the same attention equally. Here are some basic strategies.

Attention and equal emotional reinforcements

Parents with large families aren’t always aware of these small inequalities in terms of child care. It’s true that little ones demand more care and that great hopes are harbored in firstborn children. However, it’s important to be careful, because middle children tend to feel most neglected. Therefore, as parents, we should:

  • Foster the same hopes in all of our children.
  • Offer them all the same learning opportunities.
  • Provide reinforcement and emotional validation to all of them equally.
  • Show interest in what each one of them is like and what their dreams are.
  • Understand that every child is unique and that every sibling has specific needs.

Avoid comparisons

Try not to compare siblings with each other. In fact, this practice tends to leave scars and be the subject of later resentment. If any of your children demonstrate an advantage in a particular area, don’t belittle the others for not showing the same ability. Every sibling has their own virtues.

Spend quality time with everyone equally

What happens in childhood builds the adult of tomorrow. Thus, time shared with children acts as a foundation that remains impregnated in their emotional memory. So, try to spend quality time with your children, together and also separately.

An occasional fun getaway with only the middle children reinforces the parent/child relationship. Moreover, they’re moments that’ll always be remembered.

Bear in mind middle child syndrome

It doesn’t matter that some people don’t believe that this syndrome exists. It’s evident that middle siblings are sometimes perceived as invisible children on the affective radar of their parents. Bear this in mind on a daily basis and try to blur that kind of perception. Quash it and you’ll prevent your child from developing such a feeling.

Love helps middle child syndrome not to germinate

Attention, presence, and emotional reinforcements deactivate middle child syndrome. While no one can deny that the journey of upbringing and education is a challenge, let’s remember that beyond food, clothing, and gifts, what children need most is love.

Indeed, loving them is the best possible nutrient. It’ll ensure that middle child syndrome doesn’t even germinate, let alone drag on into the future.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.