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About Middle Child Syndrome

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis ; Updated August 14, 2017

Birth order theory suggests that one's place among siblings—first born, middle child, last born—influences one's personality and adult life. Researchers have viewed middle children as getting the worst deal because they do not receive the attention given to the oldest and youngest children, resulting in "middle child syndrome."


Dr. Alfred Adler, M.D., an Austrian psychoanalyst, founded birth order studies. A pioneer of modern psychiatry, Adler theorized that a person's place in a family's birth order had a strong effect on character. Adler was a middle child in competition with his oldest brother, Sigmund. After Adler's death in 1937, his birth order ideas were spread worldwide by Adlerian therapists.

Research Controversy

Birth order research results are hotly debated within the scientific community. Some scientific studies show that birth order has an influence on character and career; other studies show no influence. Dr. Frank J. Sulloway, visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, argues in a historical essay, "Birth Order," that research indeed shows birth order affects adult behavior.

Birth Order Theory

Psychologist Kevin Leman explains birth order theory in his 1996 tome, "The Birth Order Book." Leman suggests that the oldest child in a family will be a leader, an assistant parent to siblings and more cautious than the other children. Youngest children are thought to spend their lives as the family's "baby," with cheerful, good-humored personalities.

Middle children have been described as suffering from "middle child syndrome," in which they do not receive the intense parental attention given to the first-born child, nor do they receive the indulgence that the youngest child is given. Middle children complain of receiving only hand-me-down toys and clothes as children and watching the oldest and youngest children monopolize their parents' attention.

Adult Middle Children

Adler suggested that middle children would be competitive with the oldest child and would work hard to succeed in their careers. Middle children also might be more personable and get along better with others than the oldest and youngest children.

Sulloway, in his 1998 book, "Born to Rebel," examined the historical roles played by middle children. He found that middle, or "later born," children tended to become rebels far more often than oldest children. Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary theory in biology, is cited by Sulloway as a prime example of the rebellious middle child.

Lingering Memories

As adults, some middle children still feel cheated out of their parents' love. An informal poll of adult middle children by The stated that 42 percent of the 1,000 middle children who responded to a survey complained that they were forced to look after themselves from an early age in ways that their siblings were not.

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