Dr Laura Markham discusses the very real occurrence of middle child syndrome, why it happens, and what parents can do to foster a healthy, well-adapted middle child.
Studies have found that middle children are often less close to their parents. That makes sense: they never had time as an ‘only’ child the way the oldest child did, and they had to stop being the baby when another child came along. They are usually babied for a shorter period of time and get less parental attention. Often, parents really are less close to the middle child because there is simply less one-on-one time to build a relationship.
Lonely in the middle
Middle children may also struggle with an ‘identity crisis’ of not having a specific role in the family. They often see that the oldest gets more privileges and more celebration for new achievements. The youngest gets more attention and fewer expectations. They wonder what they can do to be ‘special’.
The combination of less parental responsiveness and the identity crisis of not having a specific role in the family can make middle children feel less valued, so they may act out to get attention. Unfortunately, that often annoys parents, who throw up their hands in dismay at their middle child’s defiance, rather than realising that it’s a cry for connection.
Interestingly, when the middle child is the only boy or the only girl, they don’t seem to experience ‘middle child syndrome’. Apparently their unique position as the only girl or boy assures them a feeling of uniqueness that middle children who have siblings of the same sex don’t experience.
What can you do to prevent middle child syndrome?
- Put extra effort into your relationship with your middle child
Maybe your relationship with your middle child is already super close. But if not, or if you see your middle child struggling, consider that more connection with you might be just what he needs. Be sure that you acknowledge his feelings even when you disagree with them. For instance, you may not agree that the youngest gets special treatment, but your child needs to know that you hear him when he tells you that’s what she thinks. Make an effort to notice who he is, and let him know that you ‘see’ him and treasure him exactly as he is. Most of all, enjoy him. When children feel in their bones that we enjoy them, they feel valued and loved.
- Be sure that your middle child feels he belongs and is a significant part of your family
All children share the basic need to feel significant in their families. Middle children are in a position where this need is less likely to be met. Every child deserves to be adored unconditionally just for being themselves, without having to do anything to earn that. In addition, note aloud the unique talents and qualities that each child brings to the world:
“I love the way you’re always singing.”
“I love to watch you play soccer!”
“I notice that you always take time to pet the dog.”
Finally, give each child the opportunity to contribute, so that they feel they have an important role in the family. So, for instance, be sure to value the chores your child does and the responsibilities he takes on, as a unique and valuable contribution to the whole family.
- Encourage your middle child in all passions, but particularly in ones that are not already displayed by the oldest
Middle kids need to feel like they can shine too. It’s hard to compete with a child who is older, so it’s beneficial if your second has some turf that is all his.
- Coach middle children to stick up for themselves
For instance, show them how to walk away when the older sibling pushes them around. Often, they’ll keep playing, compromise their own integrity and then feel resentful. When your kids get into an altercation, encourage each one to voice their needs and wants to the other without attacking. “You can tell him how you feel, Jason: Say ‘I need a turn, too.'”
- Be sure middle kids have other social interactions where they have more power
This way they don’t only learn the role of giving in. Middle kids need connection outside the family so they can experiment with being more powerful. Middle children will often want to play with friends instead of siblings. That’s fine, but include their friends with the family as well, so they’re at your house some of the time, rather than always at friends’ houses
- When your middle child complains, listen and empathise
But also point out that he gets the best of all worlds – he doesn’t have to fight for privileges like his brother, who trail-blazes with the parents and gets them to loosen the rules. Unlike the little one, he gets included in big-kid adventures with his big brother. And he also gets to help with the baby and be a big brother himself. It won’t make a difference to him now, but you can also promise him that someday he will be the oldest at home, when his big sibling graduates from high school.