What to Know About Middle Child Syndrome

Two older siblings holding their new baby sibling

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Middle children often get a bad rap. Popular culture imagines they are forgotten, rebellious, or unable to measure up to their older or younger siblings. In fact, stereotypes often tell us that middle children aren’t as smart, connected to the family, capable as leaders, or likely to follow rules as their older or younger siblings. These perceived negative impacts of being a middle child are often called middle child syndrome.

"In some families, middle child syndrome is a real thing," says Jane Hammerslough, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist practicing in New York, California, and Massachusetts and a clinical fellow with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. "Birth order does impact the way you move through the world." So it's natural to worry that your soon-to-be middle child may get the short end of the stick.

However, says Hammerslough, being in the middle isn't all bad. Learn more about what it means to be a middle child, middle child syndrome, and how to best support the middle child in your family.

What Is Middle Child Syndrome?

Historically and culturally, being the middle child has often come with fewer benefits, responsibilities, or status. This situation leaves some middle children feeling somewhat forgotten or less special than the first or last borns and creates the dynamic often referred to as "middle child syndrome."

However, while middle child syndrome is an experience many middle kids relate to and it's commonly understood to exist, it isn't an official diagnosis. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), middle child syndrome is "a hypothetical condition purported to be shared by all middle-born children, based on the assumption that middle children in a family develop personality characteristics that are different from first-born and later-born children."

However, the APA is quick to point out that being a middle child doesn't need to define or malign a child—or set them on a course for any particular fate. Their definition continues: "Current research indicates that a child’s birth order in a particular family may have small, subtle influences on personality and intelligence but not strong and consistent effects on psychological outcomes."

The collective experience of many middle children, in pop culture and anecdotally, tells us that being a middle child can feel challenging.

The epitome of this trope is Jan Brady in the 1995 Brady Bunch movie. The character's fixation on her perceived second-class familial status, which is taken to extremes for the sake of laughs, has Jan fully traumatized by her older sister Marcia’s “perfection” and younger sister Cindy’s adorableness. Soon, she’s obsessively chanting to herself “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” and plotting her revenge.

What Experts Think

You might say that Jan Brady is the poster child for middle child syndrome. But the reality is that the concept of middle child syndrome is more hype than truth, as many of the stereotypes about middle children aren’t supported by research on the impact of birth order, says Hammerslough. However, many middle children do identify with some of the characteristics and lack of attention that this birth order is known for.

“Because parental and family attention may fall naturally toward the first and last sibling positions, the middle child can sometimes describe feeling a bit lost, unimportant, and/or overlooked by both parents and siblings," says Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota.

"Middle children tend to describe feeling a bit less loved and cared for in the family," says Dr. Silva-Breen.

However, notes Hammerslough, socio-emotional development and future outcomes for middle children have a lot to do with how you parent. "If parents bring a consciousness to the stereotypes, then this can mitigate the classic pitfalls," she says. This means your middle child isn't destined to feel lost in the middle.

Does Birth Order Play a Role in Development?

Birth order can play an important role in child development, says Dr. Silva-Breen. “Each child born into a family ends up having their own unique experience with their parent(s) and any siblings they have," she explains. "Psychologists and social scientists often refer to this experience as a 'family microenvironment' or niche. These niches, which are often labeled as birth orders, describe the way each unique place in the family functions.”

However, many other factors make up a child's family life and childhood experiences, such as the specifics of the parental relationship, parenting style, genetics, cultural and societal norms, school and peer influences, and the financial, emotional, and cultural dynamic of the family. These factors all play important roles in outcomes for children.

"The stereotype of having three children is that you may have one child who is the golden child, one who is forgettable or the scapegoat, and the last who is the class clown," says Hammerslough. However, it's important to note that those roles are not predestined and there is a great variation in how kids in different birth orders turn out.

Still, much emphasis has historically been paid to the firstborn. In past eras, these children were the heirs to thrones and first in line for a family’s inheritance. They also tend to shoulder the hopes and dreams of their parents. Likewise, the youngest also holds a special place as the baby of the family. The kids in the middle don’t have such lofty berths.

“Birth order is a way we describe the general human differences that occur when parents are raising different children over time," says Dr. Silva-Breen. "These family patterns are just one way that family therapists understand families and human personality and are less important to individual development than other major factors like genetics, gender, and the psychological health of parents."

While birth order does make a discernible impact, it is not inescapable or the most potent factor, says Hammerslough. Plus, if parents are aware of the assumptions they (and the larger community) have about middle children, they can intentionally work to avoid reinforcing those stereotypes with their own kids. This can be achieved by aiming to view and parent each child as an individual rather than pigeonholing them to a predetermined role in the family, says Hammerslough.

Characteristics of Middle Children

Being a middle child creates a shared lived experience that can result in shared characteristics. "Middle children, because they are neither the firstborn to the family or the last, tend to experience their family as less focused on them, and may develop to be more peer-oriented, socially skilled, and independent from the family’s circle of influence," says Dr. Silva-Breen.

As a middle child myself, I would say middle children tend to be flexible, adaptable observers and peacemakers who know how to get along with people of different ages and viewpoints. However, these characteristics will not ring true for every middle child.

What tends to resonate even more universally for middle children is the sense that they are part of a group that may not always prioritize them. Typically, they are either happy to play a supporting role, or they strive to stand out in some way, says Hammerslough.

Sometimes, this takes the form of acting out, distancing themselves, or defining their identity outside the family unit. Others may rebel by adopting unique habits, interests, or behaviors. Conversely, some middle kids may simply seek to blend in—or aren't so worried about their "place" in the family.

"As subsequent children are born into the family, they experience a different family from the firstborn," says Dr. Silva-Breen. "They are born to slightly older, more experienced and resource-stretched parents, and also have a sibling or siblings, with whom they must jockey or compete for time, energy, and attention within the family unit." Middle children tend to be less concerned about parental rules, values, and issues, and are sometimes more affectionate and fun-loving than their firstborn siblings.

"These children can sometimes feel less driven to excel in the conventional terms of academics and classroom, and enjoy the more social, athletic, and artistic aspects of school as they grow." Additionally, middle children may lean far outside the family for their sense of meaning and identity, says Dr. Silva-Breen. However, while the stereotype is that they tend to be less close to their families, a 2020 study found no evidence to support this claim.

However, often parents may spend less one-on-one time with middle children as family demands grow, and older and younger children’s welfare may subtly take precedence, says Dr. Silva-Breen "[Middle children] are the most inclined to value diplomacy and social cooperation and become less reliant upon their parents for their sense of wellbeing than the other two sibling positions," she says.  

Tips for Parenting Your Middle Child

There are many things parents can do to help mitigate any possible negative influence of being a middle child. "The most important thing that parents can do to raise healthy children is to treat each child they have as unique and valuable people who deserve one-on-one attention from each and both parents as they grow," says Dr. Silva-Breen.

Naturally, parents are limited in their time, attention, emotional energy, and focus—and the more children they have, the less devoted energy each one may get. However, quality time and seeing each child as an individual without the pressures or assumptions of birth order make a big difference, says Hamerslough.

"Helping each child develop their own talents and direction, without the constant comparison to the child who may best follow their parent’s family 'script,' will help the middle child experience their parents as loving, focused, and understanding of them," says Dr. Silva-Breen. "This will help that middle-position child know that they are as valued and seen as their older and younger sibling."

A Word From Verywell

Just like with anything else in life, a child's particular birth order has both advantages and disadvantages, which will vary quite a bit from person to person. This reality is especially true for middle children, who must overcome some negative assumptions and possible disadvantages. But, in truth, the middle position can hold just as many benefits as being the first or last child—especially if you choose to see it that way.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.