Many people who are a brother or a sister to someone are familiar with the fine art of sibling rivalry. Three siblings can triangulate sibling relationships, meaning one child (most likely the middle) can feel left out from the bond of the other two (the oldest and the youngest). Those who feel they get lost in the sibling shuffle are deemed as suffering from “middle child syndrome.”
Middle Child Syndrome: Birth Order Theory
Middle child syndrome stems from the notion birth order affects personality. This means there’s a connection between a person’s behavior and position in the family hierarchy. This controversial theory originally derived from psychologist Alfred Adler in 1928, who proposed firstborns are more likely to be responsible and intelligent; the youngest are spoiled and manipulative; and those in the middle are left out and isolated.
Adler argued the birth of a sibling has a more profound effect on personality if it occurs within a range of three years of their birth. In other words, the birth order theory is more applicable if the first born sibling and the second born sibling have a smaller age gap between them. Adler predicts second born siblings are more likely to harbor feelings of isolation or loneliness if they’re sandwiched between first born and last born siblings.
This belief only fuels stereotypes about birth order that have limited scientific support.
Cultural portrayals have reinforced the stereotypes of the middle child that Adler helped introduce. Television shows like The Brady Brunch, Malcolm In The Middle, and Full House all fanned the middle child flame. In the 1970s, Jan Brady, the middle child on The Brady Bunch, became the poster child for middle children in America, with many scenes revolving around her jealousy of the attention her older sister received — hence, the popular phrase, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
The Perks Of Being A Middle Child
This stereotype shortchanges the complexities of being a middle child. Those who are caught in the middle at a young age develop a broad range of vital coping skills that are useful throughout life.
A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Florida, explains for middle children, the stereotype is that they’re social (often at the expense of their academics), fair, and keep the peace among the family.
“Once a younger sibling becomes a middle sibling,” says Marsden, “they may turn their attention outside the family.” [They tend to lean on their friends more than family because their parents’ attention is now divided, especially when the younger child comes along], Marsden told Medical Daily.
Previous research supports that assertion. In one study, researchers asked participants whether they would turn to their parents or siblings for help. First- and last-borns were more likely to rely on mom or dad, whereas middleborns looked to their brothers or sisters.
A lack of attention from their parents might actually benefit middle children. They may be psychologically well off because of this “space,” says Catherine Salmon, a psychology professor at the University of Redlands in California and co-author of the book, “The Secret Power of Middle Children.” They become more independent, think outside the box, feel less pressure to conform, and are more empathetic,” Salmon told Psychology Today.
Based on Salmon’s research, middles tend to be more open-minded and more willing to try new things. Salmon believes it’s because they’re usually forced to be more independent, which allows them to explore more outside their comfort zone. For example, a study found 85 percent of middles were open to new ideas like cold fusion — the theory that nuclear fusion would occur at, or near, room temperature — compared to only 50 percent of first-borns.
Middles often go under the radar, but they use this to their advantage.
Many middle children use their under-the-radar status to their advantage, says Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist in New York City, N.Y. “Some people use this experience to propel themselves to do great things and stand out,” Michaelis told Medical Daily.
Middle children have found ways to stand out. Half of all U.S. presidents have been middle children. Also, middles are more likely to get along with others than firstborns, because they use their peace-making tendencies to their advantage socially, according to study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Middle children may also develop a deeper value for relationships. A 2010 review of birth order found a strong link between being a middle child and staying faithful in monogamous relationships. In her book, Salmon reported that 80 percent of middle children have never cheated on their significant others, while 5 percent of firstborns and 53 percent of last-borns had previously done so. Middles’ open-minded and adventurous nature and ability to avoid conflict is what makes them desirable partners, according to Salmon.
Middle Child Syndrome: The Verdict
Research about birth order supports the idea that where a sibling falls in the chronology can influence how that individual thinks and who they become. But the evidence shows that middles are not doomed by being stuck in the middle. Rather, this position confers some benefits that oldest and youngest may not receive.
And there’s also the problem of finding what we’re seeking. Like astrology or personality tests, we can discover correlations between birth order and personality if we look for them, but it’s just a small aspect of who we are.
This article was originally published on Medical Daily