Being the first born in my family, I was assigned by mum to look after my siblings and cousins, at home and in school. The fact that I was only five years old at the time and in kindergarten didn’t seem to matter much. I started constantly worrying about my siblings’ wellbeing and became fiercely protective of them even after becoming an adult.
The drive to succeed and be a perfectionist was ingrained in me by my mother (she’s also a perfectionist and a first born) from a young age. I have always been a high achiever and the thought of failure even now causes me mild anxiety – it can be something as simple as not being able to cook a delicious meal. Exams results made me go into a panic and I suffered many sleepless nights throughout school and university because of the fear of failure.
Did I think being first born was a blessing while growing up? Not always. I resented the continuous expectations and that I was always called upon to solve problems – some which were way beyond my young capabilities.
High parental expectations
First born children are considered privileged in the birth order because parents lavish time and energy often spending loads of one-on-one time with their first offspring. A first born child is usually brighter than his or her siblings, more articulate and verbal, and able to think and consider abstract ideas says Azza Brown, educational, developmental and clinical psychologist, and member of The Australian Psychological Society. In fact, children who have gone on to become presidents, entrepreneurs and authors are often first born – notable examples include Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary, J K Rowling, Richard Branson and US President Barack Obama.
First born children more likely to be depressed
There is a downside to receiving so much attention, praise and energy from parents - high expectations and pressure to succeed. Recent research has found that first-borns got better grades than their siblings because parents were stricter at enforcing rules and expected more from their first child than their other children.
Brown explains, “The first born child serves as a role model for his or her siblings and has to grow up much quicker when other children arrive into the family”. Parents often start treating their first born like a grown up so they end up maturing faster compared to their developmental age. Children are not able to handle responsibilities as well as adults and this can lead to stress and anxiety which can surface in as early as age seven. A study involving 10,000 mothers found first born children were more likely to develop depression and anxiety as adults. When asked about the happiness levels in their first born, only seven percent of mothers said their oldest child would be happiest in life while thirty five percent said their youngest would be most content.
“First born children often become stressed and anxious long term especially if their sibling has special needs such as Autism or ADHD or some other type of health or learning difficulty,” says Brown. Parents tend to rely on this child to help with the other children – in some cases act like a mini parent.
Parental awareness levels
Are parents aware of how much pressure their child is under when they are told to step up? The level of awareness depends on different families – ranging from complete unawareness to some level of awareness. The child also adapts to their “grownup” role points out Brown, often taking on these responsibilities and being a mini-parent to their siblings. Catherine Rodie Blagg, the first born in her family says she took on the role of a parent towards her younger sister when her parents were divorcing. “I felt a lot of responsibility towards her and to be a good girl during the process,” she recalls.
Culture plays a pivotal role in “parentifying” a child explains Brown – it is very natural for the child to look after his or her siblings namely collectivist cultures like Greek, Italian and Arab. The extra pressure sometimes leads to resentment or intense sadness in the child – frustration and anger can be short term negative effects.
How can parents ease the pressure on their first born child? Parents need to remember that their “mature or high achiever first born” kid is still just a kid, emphasises Brown. They need to allow their child a break from responsibilities so he or she can have fun like their peers. Brown says she usually encourages the child to see their situation in a more positive light – focusing on the extra skills they’ve attained as a consequence of the responsibilities.
However leadership skills must not be encouraged to the point of bossiness says Netmums. Since the first born child tries to copy the parent in learning how to handle issues – it is very important for the parents to lead with positive examples and be mindful of not handing out more responsibilities than what their child is able to handle at a certain age.