At a park the other day, two mothers watched as their little ones jumped and ran. Then one gasped and pointed at a small boy who'd climbed to the top of the swing structure.
"How did he even do that?" she asked.
Just then, gripping the bar with his knees, he yelled, "Hey mom! Hey mom! Watch thiiiiis!" and did a perfect cherry drop to the ground.
"Must be a middle child," the other sighed.
The little boy was mine and she wasn't wrong - he's my third child, out of four. And he's been pulling stunts like that ever since he was 18 months old and I found him screeching with glee...on top of the refrigerator.
Because of their unique position in the family, middle children have to learn, perhaps more than any of their siblings, how to get along to go along while still making sure they don't get lost in the shuffle. This means they are known for being charming, attention-seeking, creative-thinking risk takers and master negotiators - an impressive set of critical life skills, Katrin Schumann, co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, said in an interview with Psychology Today. But in addition to their many positive traits, they're also perceived as less bold, less talkative, and more envious than their older and younger siblings, according to a Stanford study cited in Schumann's book.
These character traits, along with a pervasive feeling of being neglected or left out of the family, make up what many think of as "Middle Child Syndrome." But is this all true or is this simply a funny stereotype with no basis in reality? Is my son the way he is because he's the third kid or because that's just his personality? Is Middle Child Syndrome a real thing?
Yes, it is real, but not in the way most people think of it, says John Mayer, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, author, and consultant at Doctor On Demand. Middle Child Syndrome isn't a pre-determined biological condition stemming from being born in the middle of the family but rather a societal expectation, he says. "Many years ago, there was a movement in child care that 'birth order' was deterministic, but research has debunked that birth order is causal of behavior or personality," he explains.
MCS persists partly because society keeps insisting it's true and thereby reinforcing the stereotype - but it also stems from the totally natural arc of learning to be a parent, he says. "The first child is the 'learning child.' All the books are bought, friends, and relatives consulted, appointments kept strictly, and every belch and burp attended to. The baby [of the family] is what we might call the 'relaxed child.' Parents' radar is not on high all the time, they get away with more, and seemingly get indulged more," Dr. Mayer says. "Then there's the second or middle child. They are the 'settled in child', meaning that the lessons are routine, no consults are required, a few appointments can be missed, and not everything they do is an 'event'."
Over the course of their lifetime, this attitude can leave the middle child feeling like they're not special, resulting in the feelings and behaviors we call 'Middle Child Syndrome'.
Lori Baudino, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified dance/movement therapist, isn't so sure. While she wouldn't call Middle Child Syndrome a "myth," she does think it's a stereotype without much practical use.
"Birth order is not destiny," she says. "There are so many variables in a child's development and birth order is just a small one."
Even worse, if parents believe it's a real thing, they may feel like it's inevitable their middle child will have problems and that there's nothing they can do to prevent it - but nothing could be further than the truth, she adds. It's important not to reduce your child and their experience in the family to a 'number,' she says. Parents should be attentive to each child's individual needs and issues should be addressed in the context of that child's life, not their birth order, she adds. Basically, if you don't make being the middle child a bad thing, then it won't be a bad thing.
But whether the problems stem from nature (birth order) or nurture (parenting style) or it's just a matter of semantics, the fact is that many middle children experience similar feelings of neglect, anger, and envy, Dr. Mayer says, adding that he sees this phenomenon frequently in his practice. The bad news is that those societal expectations run strong and many parents will inadvertently find themselves reinforcing the stereotypes in their children. But the good news is that you can change this dynamic with your children.
It all starts with awareness of the issue, Dr. Baudino says. Be conscious of your middle child and on the lookout for signs they're feeling marginalized. Behaviors like acting out, angry outbursts, picking fights, freezing up, and avoidance of family events are just a few of the ways kids (of any birth order) show they need extra attention, she explains.
Then give the child a genuine role in the family's well-being, says Dr. Mayer. "Be creative. Find a real need in the family and make the child in charge of it, for example as 'the organizer', 'the fixer', or 'the artist'," he says. "Do this from the earliest age onward. It may sound silly to adult ears but in a child's world such things as being the car door opener, the dog feeder, or the door closer are important and are perceived as big. This helps them develop a sense of mastery and build identity, in addition to giving that child the attention they crave."
Dr. Baudino also suggests being careful not to put your kids in competition with each other. Avoid comparisons by nixing the word "but" when talking about your children, she advises. For instance, instead of saying "Mary is good at piano but Jake is good at soccer" simply say, "Mary is good at piano and Jake is good at soccer." This subtle change can have a big impact on how the kids see themselves in relation to each other, she explains.
Lastly, she advises parents to help children see what they have in common with each other, arrange activities for them to do together, support them in resolving their own disputes, and create fun family traditions, as these will help build tight bonds between your kids - because, ultimately, a tightly bonded family is the best antidote for Middle Child Syndrome.
Follow Redbook on Facebook.
You Might Also Like