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When you have three or more children, at least one child is now "in the middle." Although every child is different, certain characteristics often surface with the middle child.
"I didn't used to think there was anything to the issue of birth order in child development. Early theorists like Freud didn't focus on that issue at all. But I found in practice birth order can have a major effect children's experience in their family — both positive and negative," says Dr. Sam Von Reiche, co-founder and clinical director of Park Avenue Psychotherapy in Clifton, N.J. That effect can carry into adulthood.
"Being a middle child myself, I have experienced both sides of the spectrum and my middle child-ness definitely helped shape my personality. Ultimately, I do feel the impact was more good than bad," says Von Reiche.
Although birth order theories provide a commonsense explanation for the personality differences between siblings of different birth ranks, they are not firmly supported by research studies, according to Dr. Georgia Michalopoulou, chief of staff of child psychiatry and psychology at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. No one single factor or event explains fully and adequately the development of a child's personality. Personality development is complex, and it is influenced by the child's experiences, interaction with the environment, relationships, heredity and genetics.
Other factors, such as parental education, parental interest, family type (single parent versus two parents), family size and spacing among children are also influential in the child's social and emotional development -- perhaps more so than birth order, says Michalopoulou.
Maybe there is something to it, or perhaps the middle-child theory just snowballed over time. When a middle child feels left out, he might blame it on the middle-child syndrome. The concept is debatable.
Oldest children naturally receive a lot of attention from their parents because there are no other children to divide their time with. First-born children often have a strong desire to please their parents, and they usually express it through their success in school and their responsible behavior, says Michalopoulou. The youngest child is often coddled. Compared with the first- and last-born children, middle children sometimes experience less interaction and receive less attention. As a result, they can be introverted and end up with underdeveloped social skills.
On the other hand, getting less attention can mean having more room to "do your own thing" outside the family, Von Reiche says. The middle child can end up having a well-developed social life in school and participating in after-school and church activities. There are fewer expectations for how middle children should be, so they can blossom as their own intuition dictates, which is very healthy. "Be careful not to impose too few limits on the middle child, as these are critical for personality development, as well," Von Reiche warns.
Parents often pay more attention to the oldest child because he is having new experiences, and the youngest, who needs more help. Middle children can end up getting a lot less nurturing, says Von Reiche. There is less focus on helping the middle child develop feelings of competency in various areas. Even if she feels loved and lovable, it may be a strong sense of effectiveness that she ends up lacking. She may ask for help even when she doesn't need it. She can be hard on herself when setting and achieving goals.
The flip side is the idea that self-esteem develops from within — a child is able to follow her own natural path. Unless interfered with, a child will naturally feel confident, says Von Reiche. "We've all observed and enjoyed the free flowing exuberance and confidence of little kids. This is the case even when they come from less than perfect home environments (which most do). With less parental interference, self-esteem has a very good chance of developing as long as the child receives a reasonable amount of attention, albeit less, and is not neglected or abused," Von Reiche says.
When a middle child develops good social skills, she often serves in the role of mediator or negotiator, according to Michalopoulou.
If the middle child has to compete for attention, he may become insecure and jealous of his siblings. He doesn't always get the same type of attention from his parents that his siblings receive for their accomplishments. When he learns to jump rope or hit a baseball, his parents aren't as excited as they were the first time around with the older child. He resents his brothers and sisters and that feeling often builds until he finally lashes out at them in anger.
The environment in the home and the attitude of the parents play a substantial role in the development of each child. Parents should spend special time with individual children. If you are helping your older son with homework, take a moment to comment on the picture your middle child is drawing. Be aware that one child might be feeling left out. Consider all of your children's feelings and try to be as fair and equal as possible.