The Challenges Facing a Firstborn Child

The Challenges Facing a Firstborn Child

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.

The ups and downs of being a firstborn

Parents are very excited when they are about to have their first baby. They make sure they have researched and purchased the most high-tech car seat, crib, and high chair for their baby. The baby’s room (the former office) is papered with a tiny duck and bunny print, and there’s a developmentally correct black and white mobile hanging over the crib. Once he is born, every cry, smile, and bowel movement receives great attention.

As she grows, her progress becomes extremely important to her parents and the rest of the family, especially if she is the first grandchild. New parents cherish their baby and above all, want her to be happy. They often have a secret, or not-so-secret, wish for her to do well in every sphere of her life. She should feel good about herself, have tons of friends and—of course—go to Harvard.

In my book, Birth Order Blues, I discuss the unique emotional experiences of each child in the birth order: firstborns, middleborns, youngest children, only children, and twins, and stress that there are positives and challenges to each spot.

Firstborns have many advantages as the sole focus of their parents’ attention. The loving care and abundant attention parents give their firstborn help the child to grow up feeling self-confident, and he can become very successful in life. For example, many of our presidents and heads of corporations are firstborns.

At the same time, the parent’s intense wish for him to succeed (after all his success means that they have done a good job) can cause a firstborn some problems. Inexperienced and insecure about how to help their child succeed, parents often push their firstborn to read by the age of three, overbook him in after school programs, and endlessly drill him in math once he starts grade school. And If he returns home from school with a 97 on his spelling test they commonly ask, “What happened to the other three points?”

Parents can also establish overly demanding rules for her behavior, as well as micromanage her every move. When she sits at the dinner table, they might frequently correct her, “Sit up straight,” or “That’s not the way to hold a fork.” As she goes through life, she can internalize all these demands, feel constant anxiety, and become a perfectionist.

Not only does the firstborn face intense pressure to succeed, but he must confront the challenge of the birth of a younger sibling. Though he was the prince of the family until now, he is suddenly forced to share his parents’ love and attention. He clearly has been dethroned and he can feel enraged with his parents for bringing this interloper into the home. He may fear that they have brought this new child into the picture because he wasn’t good enough. “Do they love the baby more than me?” he wonders.

To add to the difficulties, many parents demand more from the older child than the younger sibling. She must behave more grown-up (even if she’s only two) and she is often the one blamed for sibling conflicts.

Parents tend to depend more upon the oldest, as well. The firstborn often hears, “Can you watch the baby for a few minutes while I take a shower?” or “Please take your brother along with you to the park?” and she can feel resentful. As she grows, she also becomes enraged if she ends up having to load the dishwasher while her younger sibling runs off to play. To a child it can feel as if her younger sister is receiving preferential treatment because they love her more.

Another difficult issue for the firstborn is that the younger child is always in his way. If he spends an hour painstakingly setting up his train set on the floor, his tiny sibling suddenly crawls overs and knocks it down. Whenever he wants to be alone with his friends, the younger child wants to play and he often finds himself chasing after him to retrieve his most prized possessions.

There are many positive benefits to having a younger sibling for the firstborn. The child has a ready-made playmate at home, in the park, or on vacation, and a close companion for life. From this relationship, she also gains important social skills such as learning how to share and take turns. She has the opportunity to acquire skills as a nurturer and leader, as well. She may be the one to teach her younger sibling how to do a handstand or soothe him when he falls down and scrapes his knee.

However, at the same time, the oldest can become very controlling of her younger sibling, as she fights to keep her number one position in the family. She must always be first in their games, and sit next to Mommy on the couch, and she attempts to monopolize every conversation at the dinner table.

All these birth order experiences powerfully affect the firstborn’s emotions, behavior, and development. Your firstborn child needs you to provide him with support and reassurance that he is equally loved.

Here are some strategies for helping your firstborn overcome the challenges he faces in his spot.

Show your firstborn unconditional love

A touch, a hug, and telling her,” I love you,” will let your child know that she is loved for herself (not her performance). Refraining from constant criticisms will give her the message that she doesn’t have to be perfect to be loved. If she makes her bed and it’s not exactly the way you would do it, but it is good enough, thank her and be encouraging. When she shows you her picture of a tree, tell her, “Good job,” rather than commenting, “That’s not how you draw a tree” or stepping in and drawing it for her.

Acknowledge his challenges as a firstborn

When you are busy with the younger child’s bedtime routine and the older one is yelling for you to read him a story, acknowledge his birth order challenge. You might say, “It’s hard to be the oldest child. Sometimes the baby urgently needs to be fed, or changed, and you have to wait for me. Why don’t you go and pick out some books and when I’m done I’ll read to you?” This helps him to understand his circumstance as an older child and to feel your support. Show him his baby pictures or videos, and point out that he received the same kind of care as the baby. This will reassure him that he is equally loved.

Talk about her emotions

When you’re breastfeeding the baby and your older child starts throwing her toys around angrily, talk about her feelings. You might say, “It’s hard for you to share Mommy and Daddy’s attention with your younger brother. It can make you angry and sad. When you feel that way, instead of throwing your toys around, use your words. Say, ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I need attention,’ and I will help you.” Reassure her too. Tell your child, ”We have enough love for both of you.”

Try to facilitate your child’s privacy

When the older one has a playdate and wants to be alone, invite a friend for your younger child, or plan something special for the two of you to do together. You might also have your older child keep his most precious possessions out of reach of the younger child.

Teach your older child to be less bossy towards her sibling

Help her to understand that this behavior is designed to reinforce her number one position in the birth order. Teach her that she cannot always be first, or play the role of the teacher, and must give the younger one a chance to choose the game. You might use a timer or a chart to help the children keep track of each one’s turn.

Try to be even-handed

It will help your older child feel equally loved and less resentful if you engage the whole family in preparing for dinner and helping with clean-up. Even a 4-year-old can place the spoons by each plate before dinner or bring his plate to the sink. Explain to your oldest that he is more developed and can do more, and that is why you ask him for help more than the younger children. Try to involve other individuals in your younger children’s care rather than always relying upon your older child ‘s assistance. Perhaps a relative or a high school student can help you put the kids to sleep or walk them to school in the morning.

Spend time alone with your firstborn

To a child, time equals attention equals love. Spending a day out with her alone reassures her that she is valued. But don’t be surprised if she returns home and still can’t share your attention with her younger siblings. She is having a hard time letting go of the pleasure she felt.

If you are a firstborn as a parent, you can compare notes from your own childhood with your child to help him understand his emotions and experience. For example, talk about how you felt when your younger sibling was born. If you tell him that you were angry, too, it will relax him. If you are a second child, you can explain to your child what your experience was like in the family, so your oldest can understand more about the relationship.

Every child in the family needs your help with the unique challenges her position in the family pose. Your communications and behavior can provide your children with much-needed support. Taking the steps outlined above will relax your firstborn, help her to comprehend her experience, express his emotions, and feel equally loved.