Middle Child Syndrome

Middle Child Syndrome

Picture of 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.

Overcoming the challenge of being both an older and younger sibling all at once

The family is sitting around the dinner table. Daddy is having a discussion with his 12-year-old son about which high school he would like to attend. Mommy is busy cutting up their 3-year-old’s chicken and vegetables. Suddenly, 7-year-old Nicole flings a forkful of spaghetti across the table. The scene quickly dissolves in chaos.

Many people ask me if there really is a middle child syndrome. As an expert in birth order, I have to say there is. I call it a syndrome because many middle children have a predictable set of emotional experiences in the family, which affect their behavior, their emotions, and personality similarly.

In essence, the middle child is both an older and younger sibling, and benefits from both of these positions. He has an older sibling to look up to and learn from. The older one might show him how to tie his shoe, or teach him the ropes when he is trying out for the basketball team. The middle child also learns through observation to avoid many behavioral mistakes the older child makes with their parents. Modeling himself after the older child, helps him to succeed and grow up faster.

A middle child also benefits from having a younger sibling. The younger one idolizes him and shows him much love and affection. Each time he kisses the younger one on the head when she falls down, or holds her hand as they walk down the street, he is learning to be a caretaker and nurturer. When he teaches her how to play checkers, or watches her while Mommy is in the shower, he learns how to take responsibility and be a leader.

As one of three children, the middle child naturally learns how to relate to a group: how to share, listen to others, and join in on activities, and can become very sociable. Because he has learned to deal with both an older and younger sibling, each with very different personalities, the middle child may become particularly skilled as a negotiator.

However, at the same time, there are many challenges that middle children face in their birth order position. One of the greatest difficulties for the middle child is that he often feels he doesn’t get enough attention.

The oldest child is always involved in new firsts, which occupy a great deal of the parents’ time and attention. For instance, if the oldest child is about to go on his first sleepover, or is performing in his first school play, his parents become completely absorbed with every detail and in making it go smoothly.

At these moments, the middle child can feel left out. On car rides and at family meals, the older child, who is verbally more developed, can easily command center stage. If the older child is a football star, the younger one may be dragged from one game to the next and end up feeling as if he is growing up in his older sibling’s shadow. The middle child may win a soccer trophy, but if the older child already has one or more on the shelf, the middle child often gets shortchanged.

When the youngest is born, the middle child loses his role as the “baby.” His younger sister gets a lot of attention, because she is always doing one adorable thing after another, and needs a lot of help with her daily care. The middle child who can do so much more for himself may feel overlooked.

A 6-year-old middle child once told me a poignant story: “At night, Daddy helps my oldest brother with his homework, while Mommy is busy getting the baby ready for bed. I sit in the hallway waiting for somebody to notice me.” As a result of these experiences, the middle child can feel jealous and angry. “I don’t get enough attention” becomes his theme song.

At times, a middle child may engage in negative attention-seeking behavior such as refusing to do his homework or his chores, which engages his parents in endless battles. To him, any attention is better than none. Other middle children seek friendships outside the home to fulfill their need for attention.

Another challenge for a middle child is related to his self-esteem. His older sibling can ride a two-wheeler while he sits on a tricycle, so he often feels inadequate. He wants to do as well as the older one and therefore becomes extremely competitive. The younger one is enthralled with all the middle child’s abilities, so she rushes to catch up to him. As a result, the middle child feels a great deal of pressure: He is always racing to stay ahead of the younger one while trying to catch up with the older one.

The middle child also struggles with an identity crisis. He’s not the oldest, he’s not the youngest—who is he?

He tries hard to establish an identity by standing out in some unique way. If the older child holds the famed spot as “the student,” the middle child might gravitate to the arts and try to shine through his creativity. He might become the comedian of the group to grab the spotlight or dye his hair purple!

There are many ways that parents can help the middle child feel self-confident and equally loved.

Spend time alone with him: During the day, set aside some time to read to him, or play his favorite card game. Set up special outings with him and mark them on the calendar. One-on-one attention will help him to feel more secure in your love. To a child, time = attention = love.

Draw him into conversations: When the family is together on a car ride or sitting in the living room, involve him in the discussions by asking him questions, such as, “Can you tell us about your day?” or eliciting his opinion: “Where do you think we should go on our vacation?” Make sure to listen attentively when he speaks. Your focus will convey that he is important to the family.

Build up his self-esteem: Praise your middle child for his talents and unique abilities and celebrate his accomplishments. Even if your oldest has already received many scholastic honors, make sure to celebrate your middle child’s awards. Explain that his older sibling can do more things than he can because he is older. He can ride a two-wheeler because he is bigger and has longer legs. He couldn’t ride a two-wheeler when he was younger. Children do not naturally understand this reason and assume that they are less capable.

Encourage his individuality: When you ask his opinions about which shirt he would like to buy, or how he feels about a friend moving away, you will help him to develop a strong sense of self. Stay attuned to his interests and talents, and find ways to encourage him to enhance his individuality. For example, if he loves astronomy, you might consider enrolling him in a class at the planetarium.

Support him emotionally: Acknowledge his difficulties as a middle child. You can say, “I know it’s hard for you to be in the middle because we can get very busy with your siblings. Your older brother is always doing something new and we have to figure out how to help him. We will do the same for you. Your younger sister can’t care for herself yet, so we have to help her more. We gave you the same assistance when you were small.” (Show him photos or videos of him as a baby.)

Encourage him to verbalize his feelings: A middle child will feel less alone if he knows you accept his emotions and he can talk about them. When it is clear that he’s throwing his toys around because he is angry and wants your attention, you can respond, “I think you’re feeling left out. It’s OK to be angry, but you cannot hit or throw things. You need to use words. Say, ‘I need attention’ or ‘I feel left out,’ and we’ll help you.’”

Reassure him of your love.: Certain phrases help kids to feel better. Tell your child, “We know it’s hard to share Mommy and Daddy’s attention with your siblings. But remember, we have enough love for all our children, and we love you all equally.”