Jan Brady. Stephanie Tanner. Cory Matthews. What do all these characters of television shows past have in common? They’re all middle children, and some may argue that at times, they all showed telltale sign of middle child syndrome. If you’re not familiar with middle child syndrome, it’s the popular notion that middle-borns feel excluded or neglected compared to their older and younger siblings.
Why would they feel this way? “The first-born gets the privilege of the ability to explore different things and what’s going to be best for them,” she says. One recent study found later-borns may be more likely than firsts to enter creative occupations like architecture, music, or writing, while first-borns are more likely to go into business or law.
Does research support the idea of middle child syndrome?
“There is no real support for the idea that middles fare worse in life because of their position among their siblings,” Rohrer says.
Other experts agree. “I think this is one of those things where we have a lot of people in psychology spouting off things that are not supported by systematic data,” says psychologist Dr April Bleske-Rechek.
“The idea that they’re all messed up by being in the middle is just patently unrealistic,” adds psychologist Dr Catherine Salmon. "There is no real support for the idea that middles fare worse in life"
How birth order influences your personality
It’s not that birth order doesn’t matter at all. It just doesn’t matter as much, or in the ways most people assume. “There are so many things that influence development and personality,” Salmon explains. While birth order is one of those things, she says a person’s environment, genes, and peer group play their parts. Parental investment and sibling conflict can also have an impact.
Even with all those things in mind, there’s still a lot of ways birth order may impact personality. Here are a few of the most interesting:
First-borns may have higher IQs
“There is one finding that has been replicated multiple times,” Rohrer says. “Firstborn children tend to be a bit smarter on average.” She’s quick to add that, while this IQ difference shows up when researchers examine very large groups of people, it often disappears or flip-flops within individual families—meaning lots and lots of second- and third-borns have higher IQs than their older sibs. Also, the IQ advantage among first-borns tends to be small—the difference between one or two points on an IQ test, Salmon says. “I’m not sure that one or two IQ points make much difference in terms of life outcomes,” she adds.
Later-borns may have better mental health
Later-born children may have a mental health advantage over their older sibs, shows a 2010 study from Social Science & Medicine. “The presence of older siblings was associated with relatively good mental health, while the presence of younger siblings was associated with relatively poor mental health,” the authors of that study say. Additionally, kids with older brothers and sisters tended to score better on measures of hyperactivity and emotional health, the study data show.
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