Middle Child Syndrome: Expert Takes on the Theory

Updated August 10, 2021
Family smiling together

Middle children are often thought of either as the mild-mannered peacemakers of the family or as rebellious, attention-seeking, and lacking a sense of identity. However, could being born a middle child really be the cause for those personality characteristics? Find out how much truth there is to middle child syndrome.

What Is Middle Child Syndrome?

To be clear, there is no such diagnosis as "middle child syndrome." It is simply a term that is often used as a way to explain observed commonalities in people who are the middle children in their families.

How Does Birth Order Theory Explain Middle Child Syndrome?

Birth order theory was first presented by the psychologist Alfred Adler in 1964. According to his theory, middle children feel squeezed in between their older sibling and younger sibling, with no defined status or role. The oldest child has already claimed a place in the family structure, is highly regarded by their parents, and expected to be a responsible leader. The youngest child typically receives the most attention and is doted on and babied by their parents.

According to Adler's theory, the experience of growing up between the eldest and youngest siblings can result in the middle child feeling neglected. Middle children may also lack a sense of identity, or rebel in order to get more attention from their parents. In contrast, middle children could also be prone to being more easygoing, due to the lack of pressures put on them, and assume the role of peacemaker during family conflict, given that they are already in the middle.

Common Negative Beliefs About Middle Children

Some common negative notions about middle children are that they tend to:

  • Be emotionally distant from their parents
  • Engage in a lot of sibling rivalry
  • Harbor resentment toward their siblings
  • Be rebellious and push the envelope with regard to boundaries and rules
  • Enact attention-seeking behavior
  • Have low self-esteem

Middle children may have a tendency to become codependent in romantic relationships in adulthood, due to their fear of being rejected and alone. Or, their tendency for rivalry and resentment continues on and plays out in their friendships. Additionally, as a result of low self-esteem from feeling neglected in childhood, they continue to feel inferior to others in their lives, and as a result, might self-sabotage their pursuits.

Common Positive Beliefs About Middle Children

Being a middle child doesn't mean you're stuck with a list of less than ideal, generalized attributes. Some positive characteristics about middle children include that they are:

  • Easygoing
  • Independent
  • Resourceful

Middle children also tend to:

  • Have large social networks that reach beyond family and extended family
  • Take the less-traveled path and have more novel experiences

Is the Birth Order Theory Supported by Research?

The research on birth order has mixed results. Whether being a middle child predicts one's propensity to manifest the above-mentioned characteristics is much more complicated. It actually depends on other factors too, such as family size and the child's own individuality.

Adler himself even stated that birth order literally is not the be-all end-all when it comes to personality development. He suggested that birth order and other factors co-mingle to affect personality development, and in fact, that is what the research has found.

Why You Shouldn't Be Concerned About Middle Child Syndrome

There's no need to worry about middle child syndrome. Again, it is a "syndrome" that has become widely spread, but hasn't been scientifically proven. Furthermore, there is nothing you can do about the birth order in your family. If you're a middle child and there are certain attributes in yourself that you want to improve (everyone has areas for growth), such as insecurity or the need to please others, you want to reflect more on the experiences you had and felt growing up, not just birth order.

Family strolling together

Tips for Parents of Middle Children

If you are a parent, you certainly don't need more to worry about when it comes to your kids. The more specific question you probably have is "how do I avoid feelings of neglect in any of my children?" Of course, the answer depends on your own unique family's situation, but in general you can:

  • Spend one-on-one time with each of your children.
  • Recognize and appreciate each child's unique personality. Don't compare them to each other and say things like, "Why can't you be more like your older brother?"
  • Support and foster each child's unique interests and characteristics. If one is very physical and enjoys tumbling around the house, enroll them in gymnastics. If another child loves to read, take them to the library regularly and help them pick out books.
  • Communicate openly. For instance, if one of your kids needs more of your time during their school basketball playoffs, openly acknowledge this to your other kids, and make plans about how you will spend more time with them when playoffs are over.

Being a Middle Child Doesn't Define You

You can't change your birth order in relation to your siblings, but the good news is, it has much less to do with personality development than you might think. Furthermore, personality traits can change over the course of a lifetime. In particular, conscientiousness and emotional stability have been shown to increase over the life span. It is never too late for you to become the person you want to be.

Middle Child Syndrome: Expert Takes on the Theory