Not only are middle children babied for a shorter period of time, they get less parental attention at every stage. While the oldest impresses and challenges the parents with all those "firsts" and the youngest is indulged, the middle child is often expected just to cope. Because they get less support, they often develop a fierce independence and are less open to their parents' influence.

Middle children may also struggle with an “identity crisis” of not having a specific role in the family. They often see that the oldest gets more privileges and more celebration for new achievements. The youngest gets more attention and fewer expectations. They wonder what they can do to be "special."

The combination of less parental responsiveness and the “identity crisis” of not having a specific role in the family can make middle children feel less valued, so they may act out to get attention. Unfortunately, that often annoys parents, who throw up their hands in dismay at their middle child's defiance, rather than realizing that it's a cry for connection.

Interestingly, when the middle child is the only boy or the only girl, they don’t seem to experience “middle child syndrome.” Apparently their unique position as the only girl or boy assures them a feeling of uniqueness that middle children who have siblings of the same sex don’t experience.

What can you do to prevent "middle child syndrome"?

1. Put extra effort into your relationship with your middle child.

Maybe that relationship is already super-close. But if not, or if you see your middle child struggling, consider that more connection with you might be just what they need. Make an effort to notice what makes each of your children unique, and let them know that you "see" them and treasure them, exactly as they are. 

Most of all, enjoy connecting with each child. When children feel in their bones that we delight in them, they feel valued and loved.

2. Be sure that your middle child feels they "belong" and are a significant part of your family.

All children share a fundamental need to feel significant in their families. Middle children are in a position where this need is less likely to be met. Every child deserves to be adored unconditionally just for being him or herself, without have to "do" anything to earn that, so make sure your children regularly bask in your loving attention.

In addition, "recognize" the unique qualities that each of your children brings to the world:

  • "I love the way you're always singing."
  • "I love to watch you play soccer!"
  • "I notice that you always take time to pet the dog."

Finally, give each child the opportunity to contribute, so that they feel they have an important role in the family. So, for instance, be sure to value the "chores" each child does and the responsibilities they take on, as a unique and valuable contribution to the whole family.

3. Encourage your middle child in all passions, but particularly in ones that are not already "taken" by the oldest.

Middle kids need to feel like they can shine, too. It's hard to compete with a child who is older, so it's beneficial if your second has some turf that is all theirs.

4. Coach middle children to stick up for themselves.

For instance, younger sibs need to know that it's okay to walk away when the older sibling pushes them around. Often, they’ll keep playing, compromise their own integrity, and then feel resentful. When your kids get into an altercation, encourage each one to voice their needs and wants to the other without attacking. "You can tell him how you feel, Jason.... Say 'I need a turn, too!'"

5. Be sure middle kids have other social interactions where they have more power.

Otherwise, they may only learn the role of giving in. Middle kids need connection outside the family so they can experiment with being more powerful. Middle children will often want to play with friends instead of siblings. That’s fine, but include their friends with the family as well, so they’re at your house some of the time, rather than always at friends’ houses.

6. When your middle child complains, listen and empathize.

Be sure that you acknowledge their feelings even when you disagree with them. For instance, you may not agree that the youngest or oldest gets special treatment, but your middle child needs to know that you hear them if they tell you that's what they think.

But also point out that our middle child sometimes gets the best of all worlds – he doesn’t have to fight for privileges like the oldest, who trail-blazes with the parents and gets them to loosen the rules. And unlike the little one, your middle child gets included in big-kid adventures with the big sib. Not to mention that the middle sib also gets to help with the baby and reap the rewards of being a big brother himself. 

And while it won't make a difference to him now, you can also let him look forward to the day when he WILL be the oldest at home, when his big sib graduates from high school.


This article was excerpted from Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How To Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life published by Perigee/Penguin.

“This book walks parents through sibling scenarios – even ones for very intense children – and breaks down the specifics of how to approach common struggles, without making parents feel guilty or overwhelmed. It is a wonderful resource that gives parents the tools to not only help our children while in the midst of conflict, but also helps us to teach our children how to be the loving, kind and respectful brothers and sisters we know they can be.” — Gina Osher, The Twin Coach