How Parental Birth Order Affects Parenting

How Parental Birth Order Affects Parenting

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Parental birth order may powerfully impact the parent/child relationship

“Stop that!” 7-year-old Allie screeches. Standing within earshot of this latest sibling squabble, Mom instantaneously hollers at her 9-year-old son, “Brian, You’re punished.” Brian screeches, “That’s not fair!”

Why Mom immediately lashed out at her first born is puzzling. Maybe he tends to cause lots of problems in the family, or maybe she feels he’s older and he should know better. But it’s also possible that the reason is related to her own early birth order experiences.

Parent’s birth order experiences powerfully impact their relationship with their children. They often explain why parents treat each of their children differently. A parent may unconsciously identify with a child of the same birth order position because the child reminds her of herself, and she understands the child’s experience. Suppose Mom was a second-born sibling with an older brother who often bullied her. When she lashes out at her son, she may unconsciously be yelling at her brother, too, while siding with her younger child and trying to protect her from similar experiences

It’s interesting to note that her identification with her child can raise more affection and protectiveness sometimes, while at other times it can work conversely. For instance, if Allie is not doing well in school and is not even trying because her brother shines, Mom may get angry at Allie because she gave up for the same reasons, but she also wants her daughter to succeed.

To complicate matters, if Mom was the firstborn, she may still lash out at her son for different reasons. She may identify with him and feel guilty because she remembers how much she tortured her younger sister. (And let’s not forget that Dad is also acting out his early unresolved birth order experiences at the same time.) These parental reactions can cause children to feel resentful and unloved if they are unfairly treated. In the anecdote above, Brian probably feels rage because he was targeted as the problem. After all, it takes two to tango. He may even feel less loved by his Mom.

Bringing all these early birth order experiences into awareness and working with them carefully is key for helping parents respond more objectively and raise their children to feel equally loved. Here are some strategies that can help:

Self-analysis is of major importance: It is crucial for you as a parent to examine birth order experiences in your own family and bring any resolved issues to awareness. It is only then that you’ll be able to respond objectively to your child. If the mother in our opening anecdote, for instance, realizes that she is actually yelling at her brother, not just at her son, because she’s trying to rectify what happened to her as a little girl, she can step back and explore the situation more objectively. She might make a general statement such as, “There’s no hitting in our house,” or, “When we’re angry we need to use words.” Using general statements gets the important information across without affording blame to only one child.

Observe your emotions: When you find yourself getting extremely upset by a child’s behavior, such as your younger child taking your older child’s things, try to slow down and take stock before you react. Perhaps your youngest reminds you of your little brother who always messed with your possessions. Strong feelings are often a sign that you are having a personal reaction to your child, especially if your reaction seems out of proportion to what is actually going on. Consistently siding with one child or battling with another is also a definite giveaway that something is up. Find an even-handed way of responding, such as, “We do not take each other’s things. We need to ask for permission.”

Calm down: When things heat up, take a deep breath, count to 10, or walk out of the room for a few moments to gain your composure. Unless something disastrous is happening, you do not have to react immediately. Ask yourself some quick questions: What am I feeling? AngerJealousy? Who does this child remind me of? Did something like this ever happen to me when I was small?

Learn about birth order experiences in each spot in the birth order: In my book, Birth Order Blues, I discuss birth order experiences including sibling battles, competition, and how gender, the size of the family, and the age gap affect the outcome. Understanding all the facets of these experiences will help you communicate in a way that helps each child feel self-confident and equally loved.