Are you an older brother, younger sister, middle, or only child? Have you ever wondered how your sibling order has impacted your personality and the person you are now? We often hear the stereotypes that “only children” are selfish, the oldest is the most responsible, the youngest is the most reckless, or the “neglected” middle child. The controversy on sibling order started back in the 20th century when a psychotherapist, Alfred Adler, developed a theory that birth order impacts child development, personality, behaviors, and thoughts. Biological, environmental, social, cultural, and situational factors influence sibling development. Biological factors involve genetics and predispositions inherited from the parents, including personality traits, intelligence, emotional affect, physical characteristics, health conditions, etc. Environmental factors include a child’s physical environment in which they develop. Children who grow up in the city have a different upbringing than children raised in rural areas. Social factors include people around you, who influence your interactions, values, thought patterns, and even learned behaviors. Cultural factors involve traditions unique to being raised in a Hispanic, Asian, Black, Caucasian, or Bi-racial household. Situational factors include the impact of trauma, triggers, financial stressors, pleasant experiences, and interactions throughout life. A combination of factors will impact child development and personality, specifically during their formative years.
Let’s begin with the most commonly spoken birth order theory, an only child. An only child engages in one-on-one interactions with their parents and others naturally older than them throughout childhood. They don’t have other children their age within the immediate household and therefore mature quicker. They are given more responsibility and attention and appear more mature than children with siblings. Frequent characteristics associated with being an only child include being mature, assertive, responsible, using adult language, confident, self-focused, attention-seeking, lonely, sensitive, wise, stubborn, success-oriented, close with parents, etc. The list of traits of an only child goes on as their upbringing manifests in personality traits, thoughts, and behavior. We’ve all heard of the “only child syndrome,” which suggests children without siblings may exhibit anti-social tendencies and weaker social skills, which impact their interpersonal relationships. It is due to less frequent interactions with other children within the household during childhood.
The oldest child has a unique experience of being the only child for some time, receiving attention, and being prioritized until the second child comes along. The second child’s birth may result in the firstborn child feeling jealousy, resentment, or neglect. Overall, the first child typically exhibits the following traits: assertive, structured, controlling, striving to excel, leaders, responsible, dominant, intelligent, etc. The firstborn naturally takes a leadership role due to their newfound responsibility of protecting and nurturing their younger siblings. Firstborn children do their best to please others, specifically caregivers, and will try to exceed even unspoken expectations. It can result in the firstborn taking on a great deal of pressure and stress as they strive for perfection in all they do.
The middle child is often in competition with their older and younger siblings, which may lead them to feel excluded. The middle child may seek attention, overcompensate by people-pleasing, or engage in maladaptive behaviors. Middle child traits often include being even-tempered, being impatient, seeking fairness, being competitive, being peacemakers, being rebellious, being easy-going, strong negotiators, etc. Middle children have the advantage of learning from their older siblings and the responsibility of teaching their younger siblings. Innately they are born into competition and seek validation from their parents when competing for attention between their oldest and youngest siblings. As they often find themselves in the middle of situations, they assume the role of a mediator, which may even be an attempt to play a more active role within the sibling dynamic.
The last child receives more freedom and autonomy considering the parents have raised another child. The parents may have a more “hands-off” approach which directly impacts their child’s development and behaviors. Other siblings will give the last child ample attention and pick on them since they are considered the easiest target. As a result, the youngest children usually are very social, self-centered, easily adaptable, reactive, outgoing, risk-taking, caring, undisciplined, trustworthy, and manipulative. Since they are the last child, it may feel as though nothing they do is worthy enough of praise. Their siblings have already hit the developmental milestones and significant accomplishments resulting in the youngest child receiving a less exciting reaction from their parents. The last child is often not held to the same standard as the other children, leading the youngest to manipulate situations in their favor. At times, the youngest child may live up to their stereotype of being able to do no wrong.
In learning the personality traits of children based on sibling order, we can better understand Adler’s holistic approach of gaining a sense of belonging and overcoming feelings of inferiority. Adler’s goal was to encourage people to achieve success and happiness through this process. Being aware of human nature and the treatment of different children within the sibling order allows us to be more mindful and understanding through child development. Additional factors will influence personality traits such as being the only girl, being the only boy, being a twin, the death of a sibling, a child with a disability, age gaps, adopted children, blended families with step-siblings, etc. These circumstances heavily influence a child’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions through childhood. If you’ve been reflecting on your childhood, siblings, or even parents as you read this blog which led you to experience negative emotions, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist. Unresolved feelings, resentment, frustrations, lack of understanding, confusion within identity, and emotional dysregulation impact your personality and relationship with self. Speaking with a psychotherapist can help you better understand and process how your childhood and external factors like socioeconomic status, parental values, home environment, cultural elements, and birth order have impacted the person you are now.