Have you ever been around a group of new people and played a game where you try to guess how many siblings the other people have? Sometimes, people seem to give off a middle-child vibe. Other times, you’re absolutely positive that the person you’re talking to has no other siblings and has been the center of their parents’ attention for their entire life. Most of the time, however, it’s far more difficult to tell what kind of siblings a new acquaintance has. Then, when you find out that they’re the oldest sibling in their family, your hindsight bias kicks in and you think, I knew it! I totally got that oldest-sibling vibe from them!
Of course, no one’s personality is determined entirely by whether they have older siblings, younger siblings, or no siblings at all. However, there are certain personality traits that people tend to associate with certain positions within the family. These traits are generally grouped into oldest child syndrome, youngest child syndrome, middle child syndrome, and only child syndrome.
The general theory is that the family dynamic that you had as a child growing up can shape the way you interact with the world around you as an adult. Thus, the values and self-conception you learn as a child make you who you are as an adult.
Personally, I’m a middle child. After reading about the traits commonly associated with middle child syndrome, I would have to say that it rings fairly true in my case (or at least with how I see myself). This may not be the case with everyone. In this article, I’ll go through the character traits commonly associated with each type of syndrome. As you read through, try not to get offended (spoiler alert: you only children are the most likely to get offended here), but instead take this as an opportunity for some self-reflection.
Oldest Child Syndrome
First-born siblings tend to be the most confident and self-assured of the bunch. The oldest sibling was around when there were only the parents to lead as an example, so they often have no trouble taking charge, being assertive, or acting as leaders in groups.
Their confidence is also compounded by the fact that they don’t have any siblings around to tease them when they screw up and they’re usually taken especially seriously by their parents (who are first-time parents and often still trying very hard to figure out the whole parenting thing).
In his book The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are, author Kevin Leman said that he once went to a corporate seminar in which 19 out of the 20 CEOs in attendance were first-born children.
There’s also the fact that, since the oldest siblings grew up watching adults who know how to organize things and keep things clean, they want everything in their lives to be orderly as well. As a result, oldest child syndrome sometimes involves some degree of perfectionism.
First-born children tend to be very motivated, sometimes to the point of perfectionism. Even if their parents aren’t especially demanding, they will strive to please them in every way. This can cause oldest siblings to either be very successful or cause them to be hindered by atelophobia.
Middle Child Syndrome
As a middle child, it’s likely that you weren’t praised as much by your parents, since your parents have already been through the whole raising-a-child thing once. Additionally, most middle children probably weren’t coddled as much as their younger sibling, who is often perceived by the parents as the baby of the family. As a result, middle child syndrome often involves feelings of exclusion or neglect, which can have ranging psychological effects.
To compensate for their feelings of not being noticed, middle children are more likely to act rebellious in a quest for attention. They might even intentionally anger their parents, rationalizing that getting negative attention from their parents is better than getting no attention.
Middle children are usually also very independent, as they often perceive themselves as being on their own and thus live their lives as such. Another characteristic of middle child syndrome is that they tend to be peacemakers or compromise-makers, as they probably had to play those roles quite a bit in their childhood.
Youngest Child Syndrome
The defining characteristic of being the youngest child is that you’re the “baby” of the family, an identity that can be carried with you even into adulthood. Oftentimes, parents have the most trouble accepting that their youngest has grown into an adult, signifying that their time as a parent is effectively over.
Thus, the youngest child is often coddled even into their older years, which can result in them being seen as spoiled as they grow into adulthood. Parents tend to keep their younger children to a lower standard of accountability, so the youngest child may also end up being the most irresponsible. They’re also used to being the center of attention, and so the youngest child may act out unnecessarily in order to keep the eyes on them.
On the flip side, youngest child syndrome also typically involves a high degree of confidence. Since the youngest child is used to dealing with people older than themselves, when they get around people of their own age, they tend to be confident and take charge.
Youngest children are also usually very outgoing and sociable. Since younger children can feel like they’re swimming in the wake of their elder siblings, they will try to make their own way by being sociable and extroverted.
Only Child Syndrome
Among all of the different “syndromes” associated with certain family make-ups, only child syndrome undoubtedly has the most negative connotation, largely due to the fact that the characteristics associated with this “syndrome” are mostly negative.
Only children, in general, are believed (according to those who buy into birth-order behavioral theory) to be more spoiled, self-absorbed, maladjusted, bossy, asocial, and lonely. Some people believe that only children behave in a spoiled manner because they’re used to getting whatever they want from their parents, including all of their attention. This eventually leads to them expecting attention from others and getting upset when they don’t receive it.
Additionally, the loneliness and asocial aspects of only child syndrome may result from the child not having the companionship of siblings during their upbringing, making it harder for them to relate to others. These characteristics may carry into adulthood, causing difficulty for only children when it comes to taking criticism or relating to their peers.
Should You Believe Birth-Order Theory?
A psychiatrist by the name of Alfred Adler came up with the birth-order theory of human behavior back in the 20th century. Since then, it’s been trickling its way into popular culture. But, how well-researched is this theory and should you really believe it? The answer is probably not.
The birth-order theory of behavior is largely unfounded and certainly cannot describe every individual out there. So, no one is saying that, if you’re an only child, you’re automatically a narcissistic sociopath.
People are complicated and there are so many different factors that determine your personality that it would be ridiculous to try to reduce it down to simply your birth order. At the end of the day, you’re your own person and have the ability to make yourself into whoever you want to be, regardless of whether you have siblings or not.