Is Middle Child Syndrome A Real Thing?

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
As one of three siblings, I've known for quite a while that birth order personality traits are a thing. I'm the youngest, and by far the most outgoing. My oldest sister is reliable and a leader, and our middle sister... Well, it's safe to say that she may be suffering from "middle child syndrome."
You know what I mean: Sometimes they joke that they’re the "odd one out" of the family; the quiet one, the one that often gets left behind. It's not just me saying that, either — even she jokes around about it.
But middle child-dom is not an actual disorder, according to Moraya Seeger DeGeare, licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY. "It's not like, diagnosable," she tells Refinery29. "I definitely think it's a real thing. But you're not going to be like, I'm coming in for treatment for middle child syndrome."
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Still, the theory that birth order has an effect on psychological development has been kicking around since the early 1900s, thanks to psychologist Alfred Adler. His theory suggested that middle children often feel neglected and have trouble fitting in. And when people talk about MCS now, they're usually referring to feeling excluded or overshadowed, like they have to compete with their siblings for attention or even like they'll never be their parents' favorite child (kind of dark, right?).
Additionally, a 2019 study in the journal Sex Education found that middle children were the least likely to feel comfortable chatting with their parents about sex and sex education. Another study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine also found that middle children were less family-oriented than their older siblings.
It kind of makes sense that these are the traits associated with being an in-between sibling, when you consider how they were parented. "Attachment-wise and parenting-wise, the parents are adjusting as they have more kids," DeGeare explains. "The second kid is getting, theoretically, a less-anxious parenting style [than the first] because the parents aren't so hyper-focused on them." They also still have their eldest child to care for, so their attention is somewhat divided.
Then, you guessed it: Parenting style changes yet again once another child is born. "When the third kid comes [the parents] have this baby they're giving attention to, potentially thinking, 'Oh, it's three, we're done,'" DeGeare says. The parents' attention splits again. If they think the third kid will be their last one, the newborn might get more attention for a while, while the parents soak up the "baby stuff" for the final time. And the middle child may feel lost in the shuffle — they get none of the special alone time they hear the eldest received and none of the additional doting they see being lavished on the youngest, just the "you'll be fine" attitude typical of (some) not-my-first-kid parents.
Middle child syndrome doesn't happen to every in-between kid, though. According to DeGeare, parenting style makes a huge difference. If you have three-plus kids, being conscious to adjust yours may be enough to make sure your middle kiddo feels connected and appreciated. "I think if a parent wants to interrupt [birth order], they should make sure that they're giving each kid at least 30 minutes of one-on-one attention per day," she explains. "That way, the kid knows no matter what their birth order is that they have that unique attention." Some parents do this naturally; some kids may simple be less likely to have middle-child feelings, despite being one.
Plus, DeGeare says, there are plenty of positive traits that come out of being a middle child. They're typically more creative, more independent, and the peacekeepers in the family. On a personal level, I can say it looks like my middle child sister has turned out just fine. At least, for now.

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