Is middle child syndrome real? Here's what we know.


For years, middle children have been perceived to be the neglected member of their family, unable to earn the same attention from their parents as their siblings.

The plight of the middle child has been popularized on television through such characters as Jan Brady, Cory Matthews, Stephanie Tanner and Malcolm of Malcolm in the Middle — an entire sitcom dedicated to the oft-neglected progeny. The phenomenon is even so widespread that it's earned its own title: middle child syndrome.

But does this supposed affliction have any basis in reality? Here's what we know.

What is middle child syndrome?

In his book You're a Better Parent Than You Think, Dr. Ray Guarendi describes middle child syndrome as marked by "feelings of isolation, of not belonging."

"Enjoying neither the parental attention and expectations given to the eldest, nor the relaxed parental standards experienced by the youngest, the middle child is supposedly lost in the shuffle, caught in between with no unique position of his own," Guarendi continues.

He goes on to detail other symptoms, among them identity problems and a "poor self-concept." Middle children suffering from the disorder, Guarendi contends, may respond to their perceived lack of parental attention either by becoming shy and withdrawn, or by acting out and developing behavioral problems.

Other characteristics of children suffering from the syndrome, Health Guidance notes, include low self-esteem, jealousy, feelings of emptiness or inadequacy and unfriendliness. 

Debunking the myth

While middle child syndrome may be a widespread observation, Guarendi notes, one thing is clear: it's not an actual clinical disorder. 

Guarendi writes:

Middle child syndrome is a prime example of how to create pathology using only a name. The procedure is simple. Find a few behaviors or characteristics that cause a middle child problems. Observe that some other middle children have similar problems. Dub these a syndrome, and you have a new disorder.

"The catch," Guarendi continues, is that any child could display these symptoms, not just middle children: "Why not call these troubles what they are — not a syndrome, but a child's unique perception of his role and status in the family."

Indeed, research suggests that being a middle child, and birth order in general, has very little — if any — inherent effect on a person's personality. A 2015 study by German researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America found no birth order effects on the personality aspects that they tested for, including extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness and imagination.

Studies conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois and University of Wisconsin also failed to find satisfactory correlation between birth order and personality.

A few studies that do find some effects of birth order, including a 2011 study on goal preferences that reveals second-borns prefer performance goals set by others (as compared to firstborns' preference for mastery goals). A 2006 study also revealed middle-borns and last-borns are more likely to use substances and be sexually active at an earlier age — though, the Institute for Family Studies notes, that may be caused more by parenting styles than birth order, as parents may be more relaxed in how they parent their firstborn.

Katrin Schumann and Catherine Salmon, co-authors of The Secret Power of Middle Children, also noted ways that middle children tend to break from the stereotype.

In an article for Psychology Today, Schumann describes a host of positive characteristics amongst middle children, noting that they are typically social beings who are more "cooperative and trusting in their friendships," along with being driven, empathetic, independent and more likely to think outside the box. 

"Middle children are more likely to effect change than any other birth order," Schumann explains. Middle children count among their ranks such visionaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin and Nelson Mandela, as well as 52% of past U.S. presidents, like Abraham Lincoln.

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"Far from being doomed to failure and loneliness, middle children are more likely than their siblings to be successful and enjoy strong social lives and flourishing careers," Schumann wrote in a column for the Daily Mail.

Salmon acknowledges in an interview with Mashable that middle children do face a unique challenge in how they're treated within their family. But she, too, agrees with Guarendi that middle child syndrome shouldn't necessarily be classified as such.

"Do I think it's a syndrome? Not really," Salmon said. "The end result is that most middle children are as well-adjusted as any other children when they grow up."

The effect of parenting

While research shows that any negative personality traits in middle children aren't a foregone conclusion, the negative stereotypes of middle child syndrome can be fostered through how these middle children are parented. "You are the guiding force behind 'birth-order effects'," Guarendi writes to parents in his book.

Middle children typically don't receive as much attention from parents, as they don't get the independent time with their parents that older siblings do before younger ones are born, or that the youngest ones receive after their older siblings have left home.

"It is pretty clear, I think, that they get less attention and investment from their parents," Salmon told to Mashable.

As this perceived neglect is what allegedly breeds the low self-esteem, withdrawal or behavioral problems associated with middle child syndrome, some suggest that parents should simply try to combat this by treating all children exactly the same or setting aside extra time for the middle child.

While these suggestions are of course important, Schumann notes that the supposed parenting pitfalls with middle children may ultimately be beneficial in the end, as it is the struggles that these middle children face that breed the independence, drive and social skills that help them succeed.

Don't stress so much over how you're dividing attention between your kids—you're not handicapping your middle," Schumann writes in Psychology Today. "They achieve because of the way they're being brought up. They develop strategies and skills that stand them in good stead as adults."