The Myths and Gifts of ‘Middle Child Syndrome’

Three children painting


AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Are you raising at least one more than two minions, one of whom is a middle child you think may experiencing "Middle Child Syndrome?" You're not alone... there's a name for this "syndrome" for a reason, and that's because middle children everywhere claim to have it. Here's what you should know about Middle Child Syndrome — all the things that make the middle child who they are (and all the myths surrounding the syndrome!).

What are birth order personalities?

Birth order personalities refer to the personality traits of siblings that research says may be derived from their birth order. Of course, these traits can contribute to your middle child feeling the way they do.

"The one thing you can bet your paycheck on is the firstborn and second-born in any given family are going to be different," Dr. Kevin Leman, a psychologist who's studied birth order since 1967 and author of The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are told Parenting. 

Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist of more than two decades and author of Birth Order Blues also told Parenting: "Some of it has to do with the way the parent relates to the child in his spot, and some of it actually happens because of the spot itself. Each spot has unique challenges."
In other words, firstborn children may naturally feel more dependent and perhaps be more of perfectionists than their siblings. This, of course, can stem from the fact that they're their parent's first child, so they may have been raised under stricter rules. Parents tend to be more attentive and, as such, perhaps tougher with their first children, since it's their first run and they're learning what they should do. 
Second-born children may be more independent, since they may not have been raised with such an iron fist. In the same vein, however, they may be more of people-pleasers due to receiving less attention in comparison to their older sibling. Throw in a third child, and the second-born child may feel even less "noticed" as parents divert their attention to their newborn, even if parents treat their children equally and with the same love. It's simply inevitable that a newborn needs more attention and care.
That said: Some parents do play favorites.

What is favoritism in families?

Favoritism refers to the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one child at the expense of another... such as the middle child. 
Favoritism (or even the perception of favoritism), of course, plays a role in the way children react. Middle children who suspect that favoritism exists in their family may act out against their parents and/or siblings. And this tension can follow them throughout their lives and well into adulthood.
Recollections of maternal favoritism in childhood affect adults more than their current perception of favoritism, according to a study, "The Role of Perceived Maternal Favoritism in Sibling Relations in Midlife."
That said, other research shows that favoritism from a father induces a stronger reaction than favoritism from a mother.
"Adult children’s perceptions that their fathers currently favored any offspring in the family predicted reports of tension with their siblings, whereas perceptions of mothers’ favoritism did not," according to a study, "Differential Effects of Perceptions of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Favoritism on Sibling Tension in Adulthood." "Fathers’ favoritism was a stronger predictor of daughters’ than sons’ reports of sibling tension."

How does sibling birth order play in sibling rivalry?

Sibling birth order plays a role in sibling rivalry for the same reasons that their birth order contributes to their personalities. In other words, when (which affects how) a child is raised contributes to their personality, which contributes to sibling rivalry. 
In fact, sibling competition is widespread among other species of beings, as well and these sibling differences are consistent with the Darwinian perspective on family life.
"Sibling competition is widespread among bird and animal species and sometimes leads to siblicide," according to a study, "Birth Order, Sibling Competition and Human Behavior." "By influencing the strategies that siblings employ in their struggles for dominance, birth order affects the outcomes of such contests. In our own species, birth order is a proxy for disparities in age, physical size and status, all of which contribute to personality. In addition, birth order is related to the roles and niches available to offspring within the family system."
On average, the research suggests, firstborns tend to act as "surrogate parents," coming across as more conscientious than later-borns. Meanwhile, later-borns tend to be more agreeable, extraverted and nonconforming.

What are middle child gifts?

Despite what middle children might feel with Middle Child Syndrome, there are characteristics to middle children that actually make them rather unique. Here are some of their gifts:
  • Middle children make great mediators/peacemakers since they're sandwiched between their siblings.
  • Middle children tend to be independent since they, in theory, grow up with less attention on them.
  • Middle children tend to be more self-motivated, which is a product of their independence.
  • Middle children tend to get along with more, varied personality types since they grew up surrounded by them.
  • Middle children tend to be more open-minded than their siblings, a wealth of research reports.

What are middle child myths?

Middle Child Syndrome is the feeling of exclusion because of their status as the middle child. It also refers to a parent's or sibling's belief that the middle child is resentful because they have been ignored in between their younger and older siblings.
But the truth is that not only middle children are actually excluded (though, of course, some poor parenting does lead to favoritism and exclusion). Here are some myths about middle children that you may already know aren't true for your middle child:
  • Middle children are loved less.
  • Middle children's success isn't as important as the firstborn or last-born.
  • Middle children's success isn't as important as the firstborn or last-born.
  • Middle children don't need as much care.
  • Middle children don't need as much attention.
  • Middle children are always resentful toward their siblings.
Middle children actually turn to their siblings for support more than other children. In a 1998 study, researchers asked 400 undergraduate students about their family relationships and, specifically, who in their family they would turn to for help — parents or siblings. While first and last-born children reported that they'd go to their mother or father, middleborns tended to choose their brothers or sisters.
In fact, being the middle child might actually be psychologically good for children, according to the same researchers.
"In terms of undivided time and attention and effort, middleborns do lose out on that to a certain extent, but the takeaway [of the research] was that it didn't seem to be having much negative effect on them," Dr. Catherine Salmon told Business Insider. "In fact, they may be psychologically better off."
Raising kids is no easy feat, especially if you have multiple! If you're raising a middle child and want to make sure that they feel included and loved to the same degree as their siblings, there are tons of resources out there for parents of multiple kids, like these books:

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog,, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.