The study of personality and its formation has interested researchers and scientists for centuries. Personality refers to an individual’s different patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling. People’s personalities encompass nearly every aspect of their human experience. Studying personalities usually falls into two categories:
- Understanding differences in people’s personality characteristics- like temperament, sociability, and motivation
- Discovering how various parts of a person come together as a whole
There are many theories of how personality forms, adapts, and is affected by one’s external environment. One personality study focuses on a person’s birth order. Birth order theory was developed by Alfred Adler in the twentieth century; it stated: the order in which a child was born impacted his or her personality.
As Adler progressed in his career, he sought to create a psychological movement based on a holistic view of an individual. Unlike Freud, Adler believed the social and community aspects of a person’s life were just as important as internal thoughts and emotions. Adler’s desire to understand how social factors influence personality extended to child development. His birth order theory described how the effect of birth order shaped a child’s thoughts and behaviors from first born children to the youngest children, as well as all in between.
Birth order personality traits are not necessarily present when a child is born into a family. For example, firstborn children are not born with particular personality traits ingrained in their psyche. Instead, in birth order theory, Adler illustrates how family environments and dynamics play a role in shaping individual psychology during a child’s formative years. Though every family is different, there are many similarities between the interactions of parents and children, as well as siblings, as a children grow and develop in the same family.
When it comes to birth order, think about where you fall into place. Did you grow up as an only child where your family consisted of just you and your parents? Or was your situation the complete opposite and instead, you had lots of siblings to play with under your roof?
No matter what your circumstance is, psychologists believe that the order in which you were born influences your overall personality. In fact, being the oldest child, middle child, the youngest child and the only child actually all have specific birth order traits that go along with them—many of which you’ve probably heard before.
What is sibling birth order?
When you hear someone mention birth order, they’re talking to the order in which a person is born compared to their siblings:
- If you’re the firstborn child, your birth order would be referred to as the oldest child.
- If you’re the second born, you’re a middle child—however, there can be multiple middle kids in a family.
- If you’re the last sibling to be born, you’re the youngest child or the baby of the bunch.
- If you have no siblings at all, you’re an only child.
Oldest Child Birth Order Traits (Firstborn)
Firstborn children can be goal-oriented, outspoken, stubborn, independent, and perfectionistic, and when you look at the way firstborns are nurtured, it starts to make sense why. These traits are often reinforced by parents through their interactions with the child.
Simply by being a couple’s first child, a firstborn will naturally be raised with a mixture of instinct and trial-and-error. This often causes parents to become by-the-book caregivers who are extremely attentive, stringent with rules, and overly neurotic about the minutiae. This, in turn, may cause the child to become a perfectionist, always striving to please their parents.
Firstborns bask in their parents’ presence, which may explain why they sometimes act like mini-adults. They’re also diligent and want to excel at everything they do.
Firstborn children are unique from other children because their parents are new to the job—they’re learning how to do everything as they go. Therefore, they tend to be stricter, have higher expectations, and be more anxious with their oldest child than they would be with any other children they may have down the road.
As other siblings are added into the mix, the oldest child tends to take on a bit of a second parent role to their younger sister or brother. Firstborns tend to score high on conscientiousness, due to their surrogate parent role in the family and the responsibilities that go with that. They end up helping out with things like feeding them bottles, playing with them and will even feel protective over them, which makes them someone their sibling looks up to and admires.
They also score high on the aspect of extraversion known as dominance, which is where the strong leader stereotype comes from—but it makes sense: One can see how these traits would make for people inclined to be leaders in various settings. Their privileged status as first child and the fact that it’s in their best interests to continue to curry parental favor also plays a role in how their personality evolves.
Key birth order traits of firstborn children:
- Role model
- Rule follower
- Hard worker
- Achiever and leader
- Feels must have superiority over other children
- May have difficulty when the second child is born, such as feeling unloved or neglected
- Can be controlling and focused on being correct
- Uses good (or bad) behavior to regain parents’ attention
- Bossy or authoritarian
- Strives to please others
- Can be protective or helpful towards others
The firstborn is accustomed to being the center of attention; they have Mom and Dad to themselves before siblings arrive. Many parents spend more time reading and explaining things to firstborns. It’s not as easy when other kids come into the picture. That undivided attention may have a lot to do with why firstborns tend to be overachievers. In addition to usually scoring higher on IQ tests and generally getting more education than their brothers and sisters, firstborns tend to outlearn their siblings.
Success comes with a price: Firstborns tend to be type A personalities who never cut themselves any slack. They often have an intense fear of failure so nothing they accomplish feels good enough. And because they dread making a misstep, oldest kids tend to stick to the straight and narrow. They’re typically inflexible—they don’t like change and are hesitant to step out of their comfort zone.
In addition, because firstborns are often given a lot of responsibility at home—whether it’s helping with chores or watching over younger siblings—they can be quick to take charge (and can be bossy when they do). That burden can lead to excess stress for a child who already feels pressure to be perfect.
Middle Child Personality Traits
If a couple decides to have a second child, they might raise their second-born with less of an iron first due to their previous experience. They might also be less attentive since there’s other children in their lives. Therefore, the middle child is often a people-pleaser due to the lack of attention they get in comparison to older siblings and younger siblings.
The middle child often feels left out and a sense of, ‘Well, I’m not the oldest. I’m not the youngest. Who am I? This sort of hierarchical floundering leads middle children to make their mark among their peers, since parental attention is usually devoted to the beloved firstborn or baby of the family. What’s more is middle children are the toughest to pin down because they play off their older sibling.
Middle children tend to stand out somewhat on agreeableness and openness to experience.
They are highly invested in getting on well with others—they have experience negotiating for what they need within the family and always have to share divided parental investment. From the moment the second child is born, they share everything with their older sibling, so they never know what it’s like to have 100% of their parents’ attention.
This can influence the development of their inherent personality traits. Middle children can be diplomatic, nurturing, introspective, tentative, and have a tendency towards keeping the peace. If these traits are already inherent, being a middle child can make them develop even more, since these traits are often reinforced by parents and siblings through familial interaction.
As a second-born’s family expands and that child becomes an older sibling, their role in the family changes as they officially become the middle child. Sometimes this causes what’s known as “middle child syndrome.” If this occurs, it can lead them to rebel or try to find a way to get people’s attention, such as by being funny.
But, claiming that middle child spot also has quite a few advantages, too. Being a middle child in your sibling’s birth order means you’re likely more creative since you’ve had to teach yourself how to combat boredom, and that you’re likely super flexible and can adapt to changing situation.
In general, middle children tend to possess the following birth order personality traits:
- Somewhat rebellious
- Thrives on friendships
- Has large social circle
- Social butterfly
- Great Negotiator
- More competitive
- Lacking the undivided attention of parents
- Developing abilities the first child doesn’t exhibit to gain attention
- Can feel life is unfair
- Can be even-tempered
- May feel unloved or left out
- Doesn’t have the rights and responsibilities of the oldest sibling or the privileges of the youngest.
- Outgoing and rambunctious
- Learns to deal with both older and younger siblings
- Treating younger siblings rougher
- Feel “squeezed” in the family environment
Middle Child Strengths
Middleborns are go-with-the-flow types; once a younger sibling arrives, they must learn how to constantly negotiate and compromise in order to “fit in” with everyone. Not surprisingly, middle kids score higher in agreeableness than both their older and younger sibs.
Because they receive less attention at home, middletons tend to forge stronger bonds with friends and be less tethered to their family than their brothers and sisters. They’re usually the first of their siblings to take a trip with another family or to want to sleepover.
Middle Child Challenges
Middle kids once lived as the baby of the family, until they were dethroned by a new sibling. Unfortunately, they’re often acutely aware that they don’t get as much parental attention as their “trailblazing” older sibling or the beloved youngest, and they feel like their needs and wants are ignored. Middle kids are in a difficult position in a family because they think they’re not valued. It’s easy for them to be left out and get lost in the shuffle. And there is some validity to their complaint: A survey by TheBabyWebsite.com, a British parenting resource, found that a third of parents with three children admit to giving their middle child far less attention than they give the other two.
Youngest Child Personality Traits
Youngest children tend to be the most free-spirited due to their parents’ increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) time around.
Parents with multiple kids are more laid-back and lenient when it comes to raising their youngest child—the so-called “baby” of the family. This is why youngest children usually end up having a more happy-go-lucky personality. And since the youngest born’s other siblings are older and becoming less reliant on their parents, the baby of the family is also given extra attention—which can sometimes keep them from becoming super-independent.
In general, high agreeableness, extraversion (the social dimension) and openness are associated with youngest children, and sometimes low conscientiousness due to lack of responsibilities and parental indulgence over expectations. As a result, they tend to excel in areas involving a social dimension but may always be seen (or see themselves) as the ‘baby.’”
Youngest children can be charismatic, creative, mischievous, boisterous, and dependent on others—traits that, if inherent to the child, are often reinforced through the family’s communication and behavior. Because no matter how old the youngest child turns, they will always fill one role: being the baby of the family. That’s where the spoiled, can-do-no-wrong youngest child stereotype comes from.
The baby of the family tends to have the following birth order traits:
- Charming and outgoing
- Can behave like the only child
- Feels inferior- like everyone is bigger or more capable
- Expects others to make decisions and take responsibility
- May not be taken seriously
- Can become “speedier” in development to catch up to other siblings
Youngest Child Strengths
Lastborns generally aren’t the strongest or the smartest in the room, so they develop their own ways of winning attention. They’re natural charmers with an outgoing, social personality; no surprise then that many famous actors and comedians are the baby of the family, or that they score higher in “agreeableness” on personality tests than firstborns, according to Dr. Sulloway’s research.
Youngests also make a play for the spotlight with their adventurousness. Free-spirited lastborns are more open to unconventional experiences and taking physical risks than their siblings (research has shown that they’re more likely to play sports like football and soccer than their older siblings, who preferred activities like track and tennis).
Youngest Child Challenges
Youngests are known for feeling that “nothing I do is important. None of their accomplishments seem original. Their siblings have already learned to talk, read, and ride a bike. So, parents react with less spontaneous joy at their accomplishments and may even wonder, ‘Why can’t he catch on faster?'”
Lastborns also learn to use their role as the baby to manipulate others in order to get their way. They’re the least likely to be disciplined. Parents often coddle the littlest when it comes to chores and rules, failing to hold them to the same standards as their siblings.
These children tend to get much more attention from adults than a child with siblings. This means many of their early interactions involve individuals significantly older than them. These interactions can make them feel like “tiny adults,” and they can seem more mature than peers with siblings.
Only children have different influences, no sibling competition, and are the sole focus of parental investment. As a result, parental expectations and pressure can be high, driving them toward traits shared with firstborns. Some of these include being ambitious, independent, bossy, and strong-willed.
However, because only children don’t have other siblings to play with or compete against growing up, they may be less competitive. But on the flip side, only children can be independent and mature, since they are often around more adults than kids.
Being an only child is a unique position. Without any siblings to compete with, the only child monopolizes his parents’ attention and resources—not just for a short period of time like a firstborn, but forever. In effect, this makes an only child something like a “super-firstborn”: only children have the privilege (and the burden) of having all their parents’ support and expectations on their shoulders.
Key birth order traits of only children:
- Mature for their age
- Uses adult language
- Pampered and often spoiled
- Enjoys being the center of attention
- Feels unfairly treated when not getting their own way
- May refuse to cooperate with others
- Desire to be more like adults, so may not relate well with peers
- Can be manipulative to get their way
Other Factors Influencing Birth Order Personality
As we all know, each family is different and has unique dynamics. Birth order positions alone will not determine the complexities of one’s personality. As child and family develop and evolve, certain circumstances may impact the personality of a child. Across different families, children of the same birth order will show diverse personality differences, especially across a large representative sample.
There is psychological reasoning behind birth order and the different personality traits of siblings. But there are certain scenarios and situations that could change this, which include:
Gender can throw off the typical birth order structure if the first two children born are different genders. When this happens, they often both have personality traits of the oldest child. As for a large family, if there is one boy (or one girl) in the family, that child will not be in their typical birth order role. Or if a family displays favoritism or places more value on one gender over another, the dynamic will be different as well.
Blended or Step-Families
When two parents remarry, especially when children are in their formative years, the family unit goes through a period of disorientation and competition. For example, two firstborns in the new family will search for their “place” and may compete to keep their “first born status” with the new family size.
Differences in Ages
If there are five or more years between siblings, the birth order role will not apply. Since the age between siblings is so great, it is considered a new start or ‘new family’ with a ‘new firstborn’. When siblings are born one to two years apart, there may be more conflict and competition especially if they are the same gender. The ideal age difference between siblings tends to be three to four years. They are still close in age but can still have their own identity and interests.
Health and Mental Issues
A child born with significant physical or neurodevelopmental disabilities can remain in the “youngest” position regardless of the birth order. This impacts the psychological birth order position of the other children.
Gender of Siblings
The most psychological competition occurs between children of the same gender similar in ages. The competition, in part for parental attention, can start in childhood and move into young adulthood and beyond.
Death of A Sibling
The impacts of a child’s death are devastating for families. This includes the personalities of the surviving siblings. Some children may adapt by developing overindulgent tendencies. Also, a glorification of the deceased child can occur- where other siblings could never live up to the pristine image of the deceased sibling. This can deeply alter the birth order effect.
An adopted child often has special circumstances in the family dynamic. For parents with difficulties conceiving, having an adopted child may be seen as a special gift. These parents have a greater tendency to spoil or overindulge the child. When an adopted child comes into an established family, he or she may find difficulties fitting into the dynamic. Emotional struggles due to not being wanted by birth parents and not fitting in with biological siblings are common. Sometimes these feelings of inadequacy warrant therapy.
As you can see, birth order can result in both positive and negative personality traits; however, it is only one small piece in the puzzle of how one’s personality develops. By using effective parenting strategies, you can help your children grow into responsible and caring adults – regardless of their position in the birth order.