“Middle child syndrome is a set of feelings and a relationship style that’s common in middle children,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. “It’s not a psychological disorder or even anything that ‘officially’ exists, but it’s a pattern that people have noticed for decades. The first psychologist to talk in detail about how birth order might affect our personality was Alfred Adler, who was a contemporary—and for a little while, a student—of Freud.”
Essentially, though not a clinically recognized disorder, middle child syndrome revolves around a sense of familial separateness. “Middle child syndrome starts when you feel like you disappear between your siblings,” says Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. Which, oof. But, that sense can lead to something more complex and interesting beyond feeling ignored and brace-faced.
Consider Lisa Simpson of The Simpsons or Malcolm of the aptly named Malcolm in the Middle; both are ambitious geniuses who, while arguably under-appreciated by their parents, are clearly destined to do great things. And of the four March sisters of Little Women, Jo and Beth both thrive and flail in the name of middle child syndrome. Jo becomes a feisty and independent (but stuck supporting the family while Amy’s dancing around Europe and Meg’s marrying poorly) and Beth is loved for her peace-keeping, middle child nature (but suffers from being the least interesting character in Little Women—and also, scarlet fever).
You get the point. The birth order placement can come with a lot of baggage, but there are also great factors of middle child syndrome to consider once you get in there and unpack them. Here’s how to spot some of the fortunate (and, sure, rougher) qualities associated with middle child syndrome, and then what you can expect them to mean during adult years.
6 common characteristics of middle child syndrome
1. Feelings of being left out
This characteristic is essentially the driving force of middle child syndrome: They tend to not feel like the favorite child in the family because they play a nebulous role in the larger dynamic.
“Oldest, youngest, and only children often have very defined roles,” says Dr. Daramus. “For example, the oldest is supposed to be responsible and is under pressure to achieve, the youngest is the baby, defined by being the littlest. By the time a youngest comes around, the parents are often more financially secure and more relaxed about parenting, so the youngest can be a bit spoiled. The middle child often develops in reaction to the defined identities of the others.”
2. The tendency to become whatever the oldest is not
“If the oldest is responsible, the middle often reacts by being lighthearted or rebellious,” says Dr. Daramus “If the oldest is popular and outgoing, the middle child might be more studious or artistic.”
This isn’t an automatic trait, but it’s something interesting to consider. This natural counter-imagining of self might come with an inferiority complex (like Jan Brady’s “I’ll never be as pretty and popular as Marcia!” trope).
Considered through a decidedly more positive lens, this might mean a middle child can see a different path than their older siblings, since they have more freedom to define their identity outside of the family (more on that later).
3. Feelings of not being noticed or seen
You know that feeling when you raise your hand amongst of sea of people and nobody calls on you? That’s big middle child syndrome energy. This may be characterized by a constant feeling of being overlooked, no matter how hard they’re screaming for attention.
You know that feeling when you raise your hand amongst of sea of people and nobody calls on you? That’s big middle child syndrome energy.
On the flip side, Thompson notes that middle children might feel like their opinions don’t matter at all, and take a more withdrawn approach by being someone who never raises their hand period. See: the middle child who doesn’t bother chiming in on Zoom meetings because they’re used to being on metaphorical mute anyway.
4. Stronger external social ties
That feeling of being passed over doesn’t necessarily mean the middle child is alone. In fact, they usually foster more and stronger relationships outside of their family circle.
“Because it feels to them like their parents are closest to the oldest—who was often under the most pressure to achieve—and the youngest—who needs more care than the others—the middle child often has their closest relationships outside the home,” says Dr. Daramus. “With their friends, they get to be more than just somebody else’s sibling.”
5. Feelings of having to prove yourself
Some with middle child syndrome have serious drive and ambition, but it also comes with exhaustion. Consider Lisa Simpson again, a straight-A student whose troublemaking brother gets celebrated for his D+ average. For every middle child experiencing burnout, there’s a Bart who made it that much harder to shine.
6. An independent streak and sense of individualism
We’re all unique snowflakes, regardless of birth order, but according to middle child syndrome, middle children may tend to carve out a more original way of living compared to their siblings, especially since they’re more receptive to outside influences.
“The stereotypical middle child is more sensitive, more distant from the family, even when they get along well, and often finds a path that’s very different from the others, so they have a defined sense of self,” says Dr. Daramus. “They can be a lot of fun to have around, because they’re more tuned in to themselves since they’re a little more distant from family expectations.”
How can middle child syndrome affect adults?
Well, negatives first: Generally speaking, middle child syndrome can leave adults with an inferiority complex due to a perceived lack of attention and a constant need to grab attention of those around them.
“It can leave many adults feeling like they’re invisible and not special,” says Thompson. “It can show up in relationships and can often make middle child syndrome adults feel inadequate and not worthy of love and affection. They can always have this feeling that someone else would be better.”
On the other hand, they might end up shining harder because of the way they had to compete with their siblings. Or middle child syndrome could mold an adult with a stronger sense of self, one with freedom to grow into something special. It doesn’t have to be a curse nor does it have any implication on a person’s predestined personality—people can flourish or not regardless of the roots in their family tree.
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