Having dinner with my partner and another couple, both of which are good friends of mine, we came to an interesting realisation: all four of us were the youngest child of three. I found this remarkable, as we were all quite similar and got on so well. I had grown up with jokes about being the baby of the family and how this influenced me, but this was the first time that my curiosity extended further than jokes. I wanted to know precisely how being the youngest child had led me to adopt the traits that I had.
We like to think that everything is a choice; we became who we wanted to be. But many things were decided for us at birth, such as our birth order. To what extent could being the oldest or youngest child dictate how we will see and experience the life that follows?
Of course, these are general trends that always leave room for exceptions. Not everyone will be the child described below, as there are so many factors that further influence it. But that can be said of any trend, so it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which you match your birth order role.
First in, first out? Not always it seems, as firstborns are here for the long run!
The majority of firstborn traits emerge from parenting style, given that the influence of siblings, if any, will come at a later stage of development. Being the first child, you tend to be raised by their instincts or mirror your parent’s upbringing. It can be a lot of trial-and-error. You’ll often see first-time parents diligently following parenting books, including excessive rules and attention to detail. For example, a more recent trend is to offer praise rather than reprimand, believing that children can only learn through positivity and having good behaviour reward. Coincidentally, this is also how my sister is raising her Pomsky puppy!
What is the result of this in firstborn children? A firstborn is more likely to be a perfectionist, given that attention to detail instilled upon them. Given that they spent a lot of time in their parent’s presence, they can be known to act like mini-adults. They’re also more likely to mimic parents behaviours or traits.
Firstborns will often go on to take leadership roles, as they’re known to be overachievers and have a need for control - perhaps due to the introduction of siblings they never wanted!
We’ve all heard the jokes about middle children, but to what extent are they accurate?
By the second child, couples are more likely to ease up on their rules and guidelines. This can be a good thing, but also comes with a decrease in attentiveness. Middle children have been known to fight for attention, struggling to get it wherever they can. This can lead them to become a people pleaser or follow paths that fulfil this need for attention and validation.
The middle child is also subject to “hierarchical floundering”, where they feel left out as being neither the oldest nor youngest. This can translate to their peer groups as well, where they don’t quite fit in or work excessively to leave their mark. They feel a need to belong but struggle to achieve it. However, if their eldest sibling does not fit the role assumed of a firstborn, it is likely that the middle child will usurp it and become the surrogate parent instead. Middle children are highly affected by their older sibling, more than the lastborn children are.
Perhaps due to this, or their older sibling’s influence over them, middle children show the most significant variation in traits. But the majority tend to be socially orientated, thriving on their friendships and holding large social groups. They are also textbook people-pleasers, and play the peacemaker - perhaps learned at home.
Fashionably late to the party, the youngest child is not easily tempted to just follow their sibling’s footsteps.
By now, parents feel they have the whole parenting thing in the bag, so they’ll probably take a more laissez-fair attitude towards parenting. Reduced limitations and rules give the youngest children a free-spirited attitude. They are happy to take risks and learn as they go.
They’re the baby of the family, and so they likely received a lot of attention. Mainly if parents were aware that this was their final child, leading them to savour moments more. This can teach the youngest child to be attention-seeking, self-centred and manipulative. They know how to get what they want.
Spoiler alert: As the youngest of three girls, this is painfully accurate in my case!
When it comes to an only child, all the previous assumptions are inapplicable.
Being an only child is a fascinating phenomenon, as they miss vital aspects of their social learning and must achieve these elsewhere. For example, siblings learn to compromise, responsibility and unity from one another, so the only child must either obtain this from their parents or peers.
With no siblings to compete with for your parent’s attention, you get all of their support and expectations solely on your shoulders. Your parents will be more focused on how you act and behave, but also want to please you and give you everything you need. It’s a lot of pressure that can easily be internalised and the freedom to believe you can do anything.
Many psychologists consider only children to be an exaggerated version of a firstborn, with the same perfectionistic and leadership qualities. They underwent the same period of being the only child in the house, except that this never changed, unlike firstborns. Others consider them to be a blend of the eldest and youngest sibling traits.
These are trends, but naturally, this won’t be the case for every individual or family. Numerous factors influence this and can change how siblings behave. Factors include, but are not limited to:
1. Genders. Whether you’re all the same gender or two of each, the variation can significantly impact personality traits and family habits. For example, it can make the middle child feel less like the odd one out, or have the youngest feel left out if they’re the only different gender.
2. Family size. Whether it is three, four or five children, this can greatly affect personality traits. In particular, this will impact the middle child and their identity formation.
3. Age differences. If two of the children are far closer in age than the others, that can definitely impact each side’s traits. Whether one feels more desperate for attention and to be included, or if the older sibling then feels less responsibility as it is shared with the middle one.
4. Temperament. If one of the children has a strong character that differs from their sibling role, this can affect the others as well. If the two older children are incredibly charismatic and social, the youngest could be shyer and prefer to let them do the talking. Or the other way around!
5. Parenting style. We learn a lot of things by watching our parents, so that can certainly impact how we act. A more involved parent may place less responsibility for the oldest child to help or allow them to be involved in decisions.
6. Special needs or medical conditions. Having one of the children be sick can really change how the others adapt; for example, it could cause the youngest child to take up more responsibility and be less carefree. This also happens if they lose a parent or other family member at a young age.
7. Physicality. Interestingly enough, if a younger child is taller or larger than their older sibling, this will change the power dynamic. Bigger is in charge of most households, and you can certainly see this affecting the birth order traits.
As mentioned at the start, these traits will never apply to all families and individuals, as there are so many external influences. The same could be said of any study or trend. However, it is interesting to see the impact that birth order can have on a child’s life, how their fate is dictated by something so out of their control. Family dynamics are considered to set you up for life, and a large part of this is down to your first peers: your siblings.
How much do you reflect your birth order role, or are you more similar to a different sibling role?
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
Would you like to receive my top monthly articles right to your inbox?
For any comments/questions/enquiries, please get in touch at:
I'd love to hear from you!