Is middle child syndrome a real thing?

I have three children and my middle child – a three-year-old boy – can be a bit of a sook at times. He is regularly left behind by a big sister more into Harry Potter than the Octonauts, and he is constantly chased, pinched and harassed by his baby sister, who just wants to steal his toys and his parents’ attention. This leaves him frustrated and lonely, I think, and his way of processing those feelings is to whine, to cry, and stamp his feet, and to complain quite a lot.

I’ve always been aware of talk of middle child syndrome but my son’s behaviour lately has seen me reading everything I can get my hands on to see if this is really what is going on here, and what we can do about it. As the younger of two children myself, my main exposure to middle child syndrome was thanks to Jan’s jealousy of her older sister on the Brady Bunch, and her catch-cry, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” The idea of bringing up a kid with that kind of attitude makes me cringe.

Conventional wisdom has pretty much always been that middle children have a tougher time growing up. Their older siblings get to be first to do everything and enjoy undivided attention from their parents (and sometimes extended family) for the first portion of their lives. Younger siblings will forever be the babies of the family and the parents are generally more relaxed in their approach.

Is being in the middle as a child as bad as they say?
Is being in the middle as a child as bad as they say? Photo: Getty Images

Andrew Fuller, author of Tricky Kids, says, “Second-born children arrive with one spot in the family already firmly filled by the bossy and responsible eldest child. This second child, who may go on to be the middle child, needs to find another way to stand out in the family," Fuller says. "And sometimes that can mean they might be more trying or difficult for their parents to understand.”

Katrin Shumann and Dr Katherine Salmon studied thousands of middle children for their book, The Secret Power of Middle Children. What they found was that, although middle children claimed to feel somehow abandoned by their parents during their childhood, they in fact grow up to be more successful than their older and younger siblings, enjoying stronger social lives and careers.

“The apparent disadvantages they endure in childhood turn out to be beneficial, in many cases giving them the attributes of empathy, independence, articulacy and creativity,” explains Schumann.

This is true of many middle children who have gone onto highly successful careers: Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Julia Roberts, Martin Luther King Jnr, Madonna, John F Kennedy Jnr – in fact, 52 per cent of all US presidents have been middle children – a massive overrepresentation of the general population.

So, basically, what Shumann and Salmon are saying is that middle children turn their feelings of neglect into adult success. Their studies found middle children are also better communicators, better at making friends, better at delaying gratification and working towards goals, and better at relationships. They found middle children are more likely to remain faithful in their relationships (80 per cent) than their older siblings (65 per cent) and those rascally younger siblings (an alarming 53 per cent).

The downsides – apart from those awkward first 18 years or so – are that middle children are likely to be less close with their parents, and not so great at dealing with confrontation.

Is middle child syndrome real? Yes, it sure seems that way. And we can combat that feeling of neglect by ensuring we spend one-on-one time with each child, and nurture their unique personalities and abilities. But as part of the big picture, middle child syndrome is not going to be solely responsible for any terrible character flaws in our kids. And, of course, position in a family is only one of a myriad of factors that will shape the human beings we are raising. Genetics, personalities, environment, religion, parenting styles, friendships, society, and so many other factors will also contribute.

For me, if my middle child develops a chip on his shoulder about his position in the family, my strategy will most likely be to take him along to do volunteer work where he gets to help out some people that are much less fortunate than he is (in fact, I plan on doing this with each of my children as they are old enough). Perspective can be a wonderful thing.