We’ve all heard or had conversations like these: “Charlie is the responsible one, because he’s the eldest”, or “Lucy is hopeless with being on time; it’s because she was the youngest and was coddled”.
The theory that the personalities of your children are influenced by where in the family they are born was developed by Alfred Adler (1870–1937). The founder of ‘individual psychology’, he gave particular attention to the relationships between siblings and the birth position in the family.
“Adler observed how children from the same family could differ enormously,” says Erina Booker, a counsellor with the online help site Help Hub. “He believed that each child in the family, in effect, grew up in a different environment, because each child occupied a different psychological situation due to the order of their birth.”
“Adler believed that each child in the family, in effect, grew up in a different environment”
Erina explains the experiences of each child, according to Adler’s theory:
The oldest child receives a great deal of attention, and is in fact an only child until the next child’s birth. They are therefore the centre of attention, a privileged position they may strive to retain. They tend to be hard working and dependable, and work to keep ahead.
Second child of only two children
The second child of only two children has a different environment again, and, from birth, has to share parental attention with the older sibling. Adler believed that this child typically forms a competitive struggle with the older child, and may attempt to excel in areas where the older child is weak and win praise for these successes where the older child has failed. In this way, different abilities develop, and the second-born may be opposite to the first-born.
“The second child may attempt to excel in areas where the older child is weak”
A middle child may feel squeezed out and cheated. However, in conflicted families, the middle child may become the peacemaker. Perhaps this child has a little more emotional distance, and can observe more objectively the pathways and dynamics of conflicts between other family members.
According to Adler’s theory, if there are four children, the second child may feel like the middle child, while the third may be more outgoing, easy-going, and possibly aligned with the first-born.
The youngest child is always the baby of the family, and receives a great deal of attention. Parents may also be more relaxed about parenting issues, areas of discipline, and so forth. Youngest children tend to ‘go their own way’, and often develop in ways not previously considered within the family.
“Youngest children tend to ‘go their own way'”
An only child has some of the characteristics of the oldest child, possibly becoming a high achiever. However, they may have difficulty sharing and co-operating with other children, though will learn to relate well with adults. They may want to have a centre-stage position at all times, and feel hard done by if this position is challenged.
Whatever truths you may see in those descriptions for your children or your own experiences, Erina warns about taking Adler’s theory too literally: “It was developed in a particular time and place, and is therefore Eurocentric in origin. The gender of children was not factored in, and neither was the effect of different age gaps between siblings.”
However, Erina says one part of Adler’s theory definitely holds true: that personality trends that begin in childhood as a result of sibling relationships and rivalries, can influence individuals in their behaviours and relationships throughout their lives.
About Help Hub
HelpHub.com.au is Australia’s first fully customisable online platform for health help and guidance. Contact Erina for tailored health advice via HelpHub.