What to Know About Middle-Child Syndrome

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
3 min read

If a couple has two children and a third on the way, will the birth of their third child affect the personality of the second-born? Some psychologists think so. Here’s what to know about “middle-child syndrome.”

Many experts who study personality believe that your family’s birth order plays a role in your development. They see "middle-child syndrome" as the idea that if you're neither the oldest child nor the youngest, you get less attention from your parents and feel “caught in the middle”.

As a result, you may take on certain personality traits that are different from those of your older and younger siblings.

Middle-child syndrome is part of the psychology behind birth order. Birth order ranges from firstborn, or oldest; to second-born, third-born, and so forth; to youngest, sometimes called the last born. Though many experts think birth order is important to personality and family structure, not everyone is on board.

A psychology pioneer named Alfred Adler introduced the idea that birth order affects the development of a child. He believed that how many siblings a child has can affect the child’s potential. 

Adler thought that even though children grew up in the same household, their personalities wouldn’t be the same. He said that each child should be looked at as an individual and that each child would differ based on their order of succession

Still, middle-child syndrome isn't recognized as an official condition. Many researchers have disagreed with Adler’s theories.

Even researchers who believe in that middle-child syndrome have trouble applying it to all middle children. For example, they find that there may be a relationship between birth order and being outgoing. But it is more likely to be true for males than for females.

Do you, or does someone you know, have middle-child syndrome? Think about whether you know any middle children with these personality traits:  

Rebellious. They're also less religious than their siblings and parents. Still, they're less likely to act out against their parents.

Sociable.  They're good at being mediators and want fairness in situations. They're also trustworthy friends and work well as team members.

Not as family-oriented as their siblings. They may have a stronger sense of not belonging than their siblings do. So, even though many can be great when working in groups, some middle children can struggle when working with others. 

Feeling overshadowed.  They come to believe that their parents don’t care about them. Looking back as adults, they express a negative view of childhood.

Mobile.  They're often the first sibling to move out of the house. They’re also more likely to move the farthest away. This stems from their feeling misunderstood by their families.

Not perfectionists. Still, they tend to take up something that an older sibling isn't so great at. For example, if the older sibling is a scholar, the second-born may focus on athletics.

Despite how you may see yourself as the middle child, you will learn how to act, make friends, and come into your own by watching your siblings or peers. But it seems that your status also can drive you to excel. This may come from feeling second-best compared with your older or younger siblings. 

Some well-known middle children have been or continue to be great negotiators, trailblazers, and fighters for justice. Among them are Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin, Madonna, Bill Gates, and Nabisco CEO Michael Gerstner. These middle children used their personality traits to help them gain success. 

As a middle child, you may not be a perfectionist, but you may be more open to taking risks and to new ideas. In studies, 85% of middle children showed such openness, compared with 50% of firstborns. 

You may be more skilled at persuasiveness and debate. You probably can see more than one side of an argument, which makes you empathetic. Some middle children claim that their success is due in part to their ability to compromise. 

If middle-child syndrome is real, it might be the middle child's sense of their own uniqueness that has led to many discoveries, important theories, and social movements.