Many middle children feel neglected from the family, which usually causes them to either rebel or people please. Here’s what you need to know about middle child syndrome.

By Jocelyn Voo
June 11, 2015
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Middle children tend to get lost in the sibling shuffle. They never experience anything first like your overachieving eldest, and they don’t hog the spotlight like your attention-seeking lastborn. In turn, middle children often feel excluded and misunderstood—and this phenomenon is often referred to as “middle child syndrome.” Learn more about middle child syndrome characteristics, with tips on how to handle your outgoing, somewhat rebellious, people-pleasing, peacemaking middle child.

What is Middle Child Syndrome? 

Birth order somewhat influences personality type. Oldest children, for example, tend to be more reliable and conscientious. They have Type-A personalities and strict perfectionist tendencies—probably because first-time parents act extremely “by the book” and devote undivided attention to them. On the other hand, parents act most relaxed with youngest siblings, so lastborns tend to be more fun-loving and uncomplicated. However, since they’re always trying to live up to older siblings, the youngest may act self-centered, attention-seeking, and manipulative.

So where does the middle child fit in? They’re probably not praised like their older sibling or coddled like their younger one, which makes them feel excluded or neglected. This phenomenon, called middle child syndrome, also leaves them without a sense of place within the family. They might say, "No one understands me or listens to what I say." Also common: "My big brother gets to do all the fun stuff first, and everyone babies my little sister. I'm left out."

Middle Child Syndrome Characteristics

To compensate for lack of attention, middle children usually either act somewhat rebellious or try to people please. Their behavior is somewhat based off of their older sibling’s personality. For example, if the older sibling is structured and responsible, the middle child might rebel to draw some of the attention away. "Middle children often go to an extreme to get attention, which is why some dye their hair purple or become a fanatic about a particular singing group—because they need an identity really bad," says Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist for over 20 years and author of Birth Order Blues (Owl Books). 

Middle children are also more agreeable and mild-mannered, since they must often compromise throughout life. "A lot of the time, middle children end up deferring to the oldest's wants and the youngest's needs," says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., a child and family therapist in White Plains, New York. This helps them become more independent and maintain realistic expectations. What’s more, middle children tend to seek more relationships outside of the family; they often have large social circles and close-knit friendships. 

Middle Child Syndrome in Adults

As adults, middle children tend to hold onto the same rebellious and/or people-pleasing tendencies. Take Holly Schrock, a 31-year-old at-home mother of five in Newtown, Pennsylvania, who grew up as a middle child.  "I wasn't a bad kid, but I was definitely pushing the envelope a little," Schrock says. In fact, at one point during her teen years, Schrock became embroiled in an argument with her parents that resulted in her running away for three days. Though Schrock admits she has since calmed down a bit, she still won't take anyone's guff. "I don't like being told what to do, period," she says. 

If the middle child felt neglected throughout childhood, he/she might struggle with codependency or self-confidence issues. They might also excel at mediating conflicts in their personal or professional life. 

How to Handle Middle Child Syndrome Behavior

To counteract the attention you lavish upon your overachiever firstborn and spotlight-hogging lastborn, the middle-born child needs to experience acceptance exactly for who he is, write Cliff Isaacson and Kris Radish in The Birth Order Effect (Schwartz Books). Here are some tips for handling middle child syndrome. 

Offer reassurance. If your child makes a mistake, you need to emphasize that his punishment is not related to his siblings, nor do they change the fact that you still care about him. Explaining the reason behind the punishment is especially crucial when dealing with a middle-born child, who's already feels lost in the mix.

Don’t leave them out. Give your middle child enough attention so he doesn't feel the need to act out. By lavishing praise for his incredible easel paintings, your middle child will be less inclined to finger-paint Picassos all over the living room wall to get you to notice him.

"Tune into the middle child," advises Wallace. "If you're having dinner, ask the middle child, 'How was your day?' Spend time alone with the middle child. Set up a date on the calendar so he knows it's coming.'" By focusing on the middle child, you are reassuring her that she is equally as important as her siblings, and keeping her from feeling lost in the shuffle.

Make his achievements a big deal. Chances are after going through the whole firstborn circus of achievements, it's not quite as exciting when you second-born (or third-, or fourth-, or fifth-born) gets a gold star for his book report. Reassure your child with phrases like "you are part of the family," Isaacson and Radish write, but also recognize his individual accomplishments as ones worth celebrating.

Encourage differences. Your eldest is the district-wide spelling bee champ? While it'd be nice for your middle-born child to follow in her footsteps, it's a breeding ground for potential feelings of animosity and inferiority. Instead, encourage your middle child to find his own niche, whether it’s academic, athletic, or artistic. In fact, "Middle children often can become artistic because it'll give [them] a unique spot in the family, particularly if the oldest one is good in school," says Wallace.

Maintain open communication. In a perfect world, we'd all be mind-readers. However, it can be nearly impossible for a parent to tell an "I'm hungry" pout from an "I'm upset" pout. Even if your middle child is feeling ignored, he may not say anything. To remedy this, "Talk to him about the experience of [being] the middle kid," suggests Wallace. "Say, 'It's hard because we have to take care of the baby and your older brother is preparing for high school. If you feel left out, talk to us. Tell us, 'I need attention.'"

No more hand-me-downs! Well, maybe just fewer. "An occasional hand-me-down is fine, but your middle child may be particularly appreciative of something new, especially a key item, like a coat or jacket," writes Dr. Kevin Leman, in The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are (Revell). In the same vein, special privileges, like choosing and watching a movie without interruption from her siblings, can help your middle child feel special.

Capture the memories. "Above all, be sure the family photo album has its share of pictures of your middle child," Leman writes. "Don't let him or her fall victim to the stereotyped fate of seeing thousands of pictures of the older brother or sister and only a few of him or her. And be sure you take some of your middle-born alone, not always with big brother or little sister." 

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