Parenting a Middle Child: How To Get It Right
We’ve all seen the hashtags haven’t we? I’ve written them myself many a time: #middlechildproblems #middlechildsyndrome #difficultmiddlechild… but is there actually any truth behind the phrase? And if it’s a real thing, should we be parenting a middle child in a different way?
Anyone who’s familiar with my blog will know I have my own very unique middle child. My true one-off. My Jonah. I really hate to wedge him into the stereotype or to put him in the middle-child box… but I’m afraid he’s a classic, dyed in the wool middle child. In fact I’ve had several conversations with people over the years who’ve met him, then subsequently found out he’s a middle child and have said to me; “Ohhh right. That makes sense actually.”
I never quite know how to take that response. I mean, it’s not an obvious compliment is it? Middle child syndrome is categorised by feeling like an outsider, excluded and overlooked. It has definite negative connotations doesn’t it? And though I’m more than happy to rant on Instagram about how Jonah has a special ability to walk through dog shit and a special inability to put his shoes on; I don’t want his middle child syndrome to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where his future is determined by his place in the sibling order.
Writing this I’ve been wracking my brains to work out when he became so typically middle child? It’s hard in retrospect to track exactly when those traits kicked in? Was it only after Ellis; his younger brother, was born? I have a feeling that his idiosyncrasies (polite way of describing them dontcha think?) were always there, but have been highlighted or exacerbated by him possibly being slightly lost, in the middle, as it were. There are definitely positive, in fact glorious parts of his personality which appeared when he became the middle child. Overnight he was more caring, more mature and super protective of his little brother. And those traits have only continued to develop as they’ve grown; he’s pretty much Ellis’s personal bodyguard now. Mr Health and Safety. In fact I feel much more confident saying to Jonah, “Make sure Ellis doesn’t step out onto the road/eat that mouldy bread/touch that machete” than I would putting Dylan, the eldest, in that position of responsibility. Dylan’s attention would wander in a matter of seconds and Ellis would be wielding the machete in the middle of the road, whilst chewing the mouldy bread. Jonah would never allow that shit to go down.
They say you never get two the same don’t you? Well, dear reader, I beg to differ. Broadly speaking, I got three who are startlingly similar. All funny, feisty and physical. They have endless energy, aren’t big fans of sitting down and share a hugely competitive streak. It makes for a high octane (frankly frigging nuts) home environment. I do often wonder if there’d been a girl in the mix whether the energy might’ve been different, whether the vibe might’ve been more chilled. Perhaps Jonah would’ve been an altogether calmer character if he’d had an older sister, or even a brother who was a bit more bookish. Years before Jonah ever became the middle child, you could see already that the relationship between him and Dylan was always going to be uber competitive. Their raison d’etre is to win. To beat the other one at all costs. It’s exhausting just to watch so goodness knows what it’s like to live it, especially as the younger sibling, always striving.
Jonah is undoubtedly the trickiest of the three to parent and to discipline. Sometimes my heart breaks for him when I see how easily his elder and younger brothers seem to breeze through life. Not because they’re any brighter or more gifted than he is, but because they have this ability in the main to shrug things off. Dylan’s teacher recently told me he was probably the happiest child she’d ever taught. Ellis is also happy (largely because he couldn’t give two shits what anyone thinks of him). Jonah experiences much more extremes of emotion, swinging between utter joy and raging despair, usually within the space of three minutes. Life feels less fair to Jonah and he feels everything deeply.
But is middle child syndrome real? What does the science say?
Well, the jury is still out and the evidence is conflicting. The stereotype portrayed by the media and anecdotally is often that in a sibling group of three. the eldest will be the cleverest, the trailblazer, who the younger siblings look up to. The youngest will be forever the baby of the family who gets away with murder (hopefully not literally). So where does that leave the middle child? Research shows that middle children may have the following characteristics or feelings:
- Feeling distant from parents
- Develop closer bonds with siblings
- Self-reliant and independent
- Attention seeking
- Feel neglected or overlooked
One of the biggest studies on middle child psychology followed groups of siblings from 1994-2008. It suggests that bad behaviour and teenage delinquency is much more prevalent in middle children… I mean I honestly could’ve guessed that without the study. I’m terrified just thinking about Jonah’s teenage years. But the thing about middle children being distant from their parents definitely doesn’t ring true in Jonah’s case. If anything I’d say he loves me and his Dad more intensely than his brothers.
Psychologist Meri Wallace, author of How to Raise a Happy Cooperative Child, says that it’s correct to call those common characteristics a syndrome because although it’s not medical, it’s a shared set of experiences which are predictable for the majority of middle children. However Wallace encourages us to view the middle child position in the birth order as much more of a blessing than a curse. They get all the benefits of learning from the eldest sibling, observing which behaviours result in positive outcomes and which result negatively. Then they get the adoration of their younger sibling who they can care for and learn the happiness that comes from being responsible for someone who needs you. The middle child gets to be the student and the teacher, see?
Should we do anything different when parenting a middle child?
There are a few things I’ve realised I have to do for or with Jonah that I don’t need to consider with the other two. They may well just be needs specific to his nature, but from all my reading for this post, I feel like they might work for lots of middle kids.
Active listening – by this I mean I can’t be on my phone or watching TV or distracted if he’s telling me something. That bothers him deeply… his brothers wouldn’t even notice.
Treasure their early memories – it’s really easy for middle children to just blend into the sibling gang and to not remember their big milestones. When the hell did he lose that first tooth!? Remember that they deserve the same attention to those memories as the firstborn.
Celebrate their differences, especially when they’re achieving something their elder sibling hasn’t done before – I would add to this that if you can get them into different hobbies so they’re not directly competing with each other that is a huge bonus… it’s not something we’ve managed in our football-obsessed house.
Some other considerations for parenting a middle child that I’ve come across during my research really suprised me. Others were total no-brainers which I was glad to be reminded of:
Don’t only rely on hand-me-downs – Sounds obvious but just because they’re second born doesn’t mean they’re second best. Let them experience picking out a new toy or item of clothing that hasn’t been used by the eldest already. Finances don’t always allow this one but it’s worth remembering.
Invest extra time in that relationship – Jonah just needs a bit more care and attention than his brothers, and in a busy three-kid household it’s too easy to overlook specific needs. Try to carve out a bit of time which is solely for them.
Help them be their own person, not just a copy of the eldest – This is a work in progress for us. There’s a fine line between the middle child looking up to the eldest sibling and disappearing into a carbon copy of them, especially if they’re the same gender and the age gap is very close.
Make their achievements a big deal – So middle children may need a bit more ego massaging… that’s OK though, within reason. For Jonah, the biggest thrill comes from when his big brother is proud of him and dishes out the praise (it happens every now and again when the stars are aligned and it’s a full moon!). So it’s a good idea to encourage that from your eldest child.
So is Jonah going to turn out OK? Or are all middle children doomed?
I’ve got some great news for you if you’re raising a middle child (or if you’re shacked up with one!). Research shows that middle children tend to be resilient in adulthood, (a childhood of being ignored will do that for you I guess! JOKE), are great negotiators and tend to have higher levels of empathy than their siblings. The unique position of being not the oldest or the youngest gives middle children an opportunity to carve out their own path and identity. And they can do that with the security of knowing their eldest sibling has to try out all of the scary stuff before them. Leaving home, going to uni, making friends, getting a girlfriend, it’s all terrifying stuff isn’t it? Being an eldest child I would have loved to have had the opportunity to see someone else make all the teenage and early adulthood mistakes, so I could’ve avoided them. I might’ve been grounded less as a teenager, less skint as an adult and less of a lunatic as a parent if I’d had somebody to learn from… So lucky you Jonah. Lucky you.
*** If you enjoyed this post, then you might like this one. It’s all about Permissive Parenting (which is not the same as lazy parenting I’ll have you know!).