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Is the Middle Child Syndrome a Myth or Do Parents Need to Take It Seriously?

Photograph by Twenty20

Ever since we added a third child to our family, my father-in-law likes to tease that my middle child has “middle child syndrome.” I know it’s all in good fun; he is a middle child himself and he remembers how jarring it was to have his life disrupted by a younger sibling. Still, I can’t help but worry there is some truth to the whole idea of middle children having it hard.

This worry sent me down a rabbit hole of research. I started out just trying to figure out what middle child syndrome was, since I didn’t know a lot about it until my father-in-law started giving me a hard time.

It could be her age, of course—3-year-olds are notoriously hard on the emotional front—or it could be that I'm a crappy parent to my middle kid.

According to believers in middle child syndrome, middle kids tend to be a little more relaxed. They also experience being overlooked because the oldest sibling and younger sibling demand a lot of their parents' attention. They're the odd man out, which is supposed to be the result of having an uneven number of kids. Two pair up while one feels left out and, according to the theory of middle child syndrome, it’s usually the second born in a family of three. It seems that in families, the squeaky wheel gets the oil and middle kids typically don’t make much of a fuss.

All of this information didn’t really make me feel better. When I watch my daughter, I find I am torn about how true this is in her life. I don’t want it to be true, of course, because I want to believe that my children get equal amounts of my attention. I never want one of my kids to feel like they’re left out or less involved in our family life.

Still, she is my laid-back kid. I’ve always said she is sunshine and rainbows but when her younger brother arrived, some things changed about her personality. Her emotions became a little more extreme and she started requiring more attention from her dad and me. Of course, now that I know about middle child syndrome, I worry I have done something wrong. It could be her age, of course—3-year-olds are notoriously hard on the emotional front—or it could be that I’m a crappy parent to my middle kid.

As I started to dig further into research about middle children, I learned a little more about them. Kids born between an older and younger sibling tend to show a slight preference for their relationships with their siblings over their parents, according to one study by McMaster University. The implications of the study could explain why it appears that middle children may be neglected by their parents. It could be that middle children simply tend to be more independent or that they prefer less attention when compared to first and third children.

Outside of this, there isn’t much research that middle kids are really prone to certain personality traits or flaws. For instance, one 2015 survey by the University of Leipzig in Germany found no evidence to support the common ideas about middle children being overlooked and resentful towards their parents or to be markedly different from kids born into different birth orders.

And, when it comes to kids who seem to fit the bill of middle child syndrome, it really seems like expectations are to blame, instead of their birth order. Children in general are prone to rise to expectations, even negative ones. It could be that middle children are perceived as being left out of the family dynamic because parents are watching for it, when that individual child isn’t really a fan of being the center of attention.

So, when it comes to my daughter, I’m trying not going to wrapped up in worrying about her birth order. It seems silly to focus on something as arbitrary as when she was born into our family, when my focus should be on who she is as an individual and what she seems to need most from us. Most importantly, I’m not going to let any preconceptions about middle kids change how I treat my kids. They all deserve an equal amount of my love and birth order has nothing to do with that.

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