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If you are a middle child, or have a sibling who is a middle child, you may be wondering if “middle child syndrome” is a real thing.

Middle child syndrome is the belief that middle children are excluded, ignored, or even outright neglected because of their birth order. According to the lore, some children may have certain personality and relationship characteristics as a result of being the middle child.

In this article, we will explore whether middle child syndrome is a real, common characteristic of middle children, and what the science says about birth order and middle child syndrome.

In 1964, Alfred Adler developed a theory on the importance of birth order on personality development. In his theory, he claims that although children may be born into the same household, their birth order greatly influences their psychological development.

According to Adler’s birth order theory, a child may have several personality characteristics, depending on their birth order. For example:

  • The oldest child is more authoritarian and feels all-powerful due to the high expectations often set by the parents.
  • The youngest child is treated like a spoiled baby and can never rise above the other siblings.
  • The middle child is even-tempered but has trouble fitting in due to being sandwiched between the younger and older siblings.

This theory paved the way for a deeper look into how birth order affects someone’s psychological development. However, Adler’s theory was just a theory, and research has since shown conflicting results about the impact of birth order.

How might being a middle child influence someone’s personality and relationships? Below are some common ideas about the characteristics of middle children.

Personality

Middle children have personalities that are often overshadowed by their other siblings. The older sibling is strong-willed, and the younger sibling is the baby, which leaves the middle child somewhere in-between. Their personality may be dulled down by their siblings, making them quiet and even-tempered.

Relationships

Middle children may have trouble feeling equal to their siblings in parental relationships. The older sibling often holds more responsibilities, and the younger sibling is well taken care of by the parents. The middle child isn’t given as much attention as either.

Rivalry

The middle child often feels the need to compete with both the younger and older sibling for parental attention. They might compete for attention between siblings, as they risk being ignored by one or the other. As they find themselves in the middle of everything, they may also become the peacemaker.

Favoritism

Middle children generally don’t feel that they are the favorite child of the family. Favoritism may exist for the oldest child who is viewed as special, or for the youngest child who is viewed as the baby. The middle child falls somewhere in-between and is unable to be the favorite of either parent.

It is believed by some that middle child syndrome can have a lasting impact on children as they grow into adults. If the characteristics listed above are true, being a middle child could cause a cascade of negative effects well into adulthood. The personality and relationship traits that defined them as a child may develop into similar traits in their adult relationships.

For example, middle children who feel that they were neglected may struggle with co-dependency in adult relationships. They could find themselves continuing to be the peacemaker in adult life, perhaps at work or at home.

Their personality might be dulled in comparison to the personality of other adults around them. They might even have trouble feeling that they can be a best friend’s or partner’s “favorite” person.

Despite these beliefs in middle child syndrome, the science surrounding birth order is still being explored. Researchers have tested the effects of birth order on plenty of conditions, including OCD, schizophrenia, depression, autism, and even anorexia. Most of this research covers all possible birth orders, including the impact of being a middle child.

One of the most common beliefs about middle-born children is that they have distant relationships with their parents. One 2019 study found that middle-born children were least likely (when compared to first-born or last-born children) to feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex education.

That said, the results of this large survey (of more than 15,000 people) were close among women, with 30.9 percent of last-born women reporting it was easy to talk to parents about sex at age 14, and 29.4 of middle-born women noting the same.

Among men, 17.8 percent of middle-born men found it easy to talk to their parents about sex, whereas 21.4 percent of last-born men found it easy.

Earlier 1998 research found that middle-born children are least likely to say they are closest to their mothers. The review of studies noted that middle-borns are also least likely to say they would turn to their parents when under duress.

A more recent study from 2016 explored the effects of birth order on 320 undergraduate students. In their review, the researchers found that middle-born children were more likely to be less family-oriented than their elder siblings.

They were also more likely to develop maladaptive perfectionism, which is characterized by the constant desire to have things go as planned.

This research does not necessarily tell the entire picture or even prove that birth order determines personality. In one literature review, the author found that some research shows middle children being 33 percent more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than their older sibling.

However, the author concluded that his study showed that these results were non-significant, meaning that they were simply due to chance rather than birth order.

The authors of another study bring to light opposing results on the relationship between birth order and depression. They explain that one study in 2003 found that middle children were more likely to develop depression. However, a follow-up study in 2016 found that oldest children seem to be more likely to develop mental illnesses such as depression.

The study went on to say that “later-born” (not necessarily middle-born) children were at increased risk of suicide attempts and psychiatric disorders in adolescence.

It is important to note that the terminology “middle children” can mean any children that are not the oldest or youngest in the family. This may be quite different from a singular middle child and is could possibly impact development and personality.

Further, some research on birth order in general, such as a 2015 study of more than 20,000 people in Great Britain, the United States and Germany, found that birth order “does not lasting effect on broad personality traits” such as extraversion, emotional stability or agreeableness.

Given this fact and that many studies have posted contradictory results, it is impossible to say whether middle child syndrome exists or not. It is much more likely that many different factors determine someone’s development.

Middle child syndrome is a popular term used to describe how being a middle child shapes one’s personality and outlook in life. Some people believe that middle children are often ignored or neglected, which can have negative effects going into adulthood.

While some research suggests that there may be some influence on personality from birth order, the results are contradictory, and more research is needed.

Ultimately, personality and life outcomes are defined by a variety of social, financial, and familial influences — but not necessarily by birth order.