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12 Things Middle Children Need to Watch Out For

Middle Child Day is August 12—here's what the middleborn have to be wary of if they want to lead a happy and long life.

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Their desire for independence can add stress

Research shows that common middle child traits—including independence and strong negotiating skills—helps middles take more risks and work hard, leading to more life success. However, that independence can be stressful. “Middle children are more independent in that they’re more likely to make up an identity as an individual separate from a clear family role,” says Katie Davis, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York. “This can be stressful in childhood when expectations and responsibilities are less clear than they are for the responsible eldest and the dependent baby. It’s difficult for all people to construct identities, but especially so for middles who receive less guidance than most.”

“Middles have a strong need to gain approval and feel loved,” says Meri Wallace, LCSW, a child and family therapist, parenting expert and author of Birth Order Blues. “They feel insecure and wonder if they are equally loved as their siblings.” Check out the traits of a middle child.

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They bury their feelings

Middles don’t want to cause problems, so they avoid addressing issues at work, in their marriage, and in friendships. Instead, they keep their feelings inside. Plus, since they’re averse to conflict, they’re overly generous and can get into financial trouble. “Giving without having the actual means to do so can be a major problem down the line,” says Lisa Lewis, MD, a pediatrician and author of Feed the Baby Hummus. “If the middle child is more generous and avoids conflict, he’ll eventually resent the recipients.” Fulfilling other people’s needs before their own causes other problems, says Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, MPH, author of Free Your Child From Overeating and psychotherapist in Harrison, New York. “This can inevitably evoke depression and/or resentment,” she says. “They can become frustrated for not asserting themselves and disappointed and angry toward others because their needs aren’t understood or met.”

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They’re more susceptible to peer pressure

Middles can be talked into mistakes: Catherine Salmon, PhD, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Redlands in California and co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, studied whether birth order can make someone more vulnerable to persuasion. “I found that middles are more susceptible to influence if the speechmaker appeals to friendship by using related terms while firsts and lasts are more swayed by family terms,” says Dr. Salmon. In other words, middle children go out of their way to please friends. “I have also, along with others, shown that middleborns are more open to experiences and taking risks.” For example, middle children tend to show slightly higher rates of willingness to try different types of drugs.

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Being a great mediator means taking the blame from both sides

Most middle children are peacekeepers, obsessed with fairness and balance since they’re stuck between other siblings. Yet, having people turn to you for help can be stressful. You have to hold a special relationship with each sibling so that you can offer that balance between the oldest and youngest ones’ squabbles. “Siblings may compete for the middle child’s affections, causing jealousy and conflict,” says Dr. Lewis. Here’s what birth order theory can predict about your health.

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They have to compete for recognition

Firstborns have their parents all to themselves initially. And last-borns are with their parents when siblings grow up and leave home. But middle kids always have to share parental attention and must try a little harder to be heard. They may feel that they don’t get as much praise as the older children for their achievements. “Sometimes the middle child’s achievements may entirely be overlooked,” says Wallace. “The oldest child is often seen as the benchmark of the parents’ accomplishments. Parents have much more invested in the firstborn’s accomplishments.” The middle child’s successes tend to be taken for granted.

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They tend to feel left out

Unclear family roles may also be to blame. “Middles aren’t the caretakers or the babies,” says Dr. Davis. “They serve no clear family function. Thus, they may receive less attention from parents and oftentimes feel ignored and neglected.” In the eyes of the middle child, oldest siblings reap all the privileges and the babies get away with everything and need so much help. That leaves middles feeling ignored, unvalued and lost in the shuffle. Their complaints do have some validity. A survey by The BabyWebsite.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 their other two. “Since their family position doesn’t lend itself to any special attention from their parents, they may be more likely than eldest or youngest siblings to seek attention outside the family,” says Dr. Davis. Depending on a middle child’s peer group, this could be either a good or bad thing, with some studies showing higher rates of delinquency among second kids.

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They’re not as close to their parents

In one study, Salmon and colleague professor Martin Daly studied over 400 undergraduate students and asked them questions about their family relationships. In one part of the research, participants were asked who in their family they’d turn to for help—parents or siblings—when dealing with hardships. While first and last-borns opted for mom or dad, middle-borns typically chose their siblings and friends for support. Middle children likely spent less time with their parents, making them feel more distant from them. They rely more heavily on relationships with their peers than with family; they feel outsiders can better fulfill their needs for emotional support. “The middle child transfers his need for love and acceptance to his friends,” says Wallace.

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They can rarely win a sibling fight

Your parents say you always have to obey the eldest and be nice to the youngest. But what if the eldest is bossy or the youngest is spoiled? The sibling with the parents on his side is the automatic winner, says Dr. Lewis—and unfortunately that’s rarely the middle child. This can lead to middle children being more likely to smooth things over rather than risk rejection or make waves by asserting themselves. “I think they use subtle ways to win, by negotiating and manipulating siblings,” says Dr. Salmon. “They certainly don’t win by using the same strategies as the first or the baby.”

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They may have lower self-esteem

Some research suggests that middles have lower self-esteem than first- or third-borns due to their lack of attention at home. The eldest is considered the most responsible and dependable, says Dr. Maidenberg. The youngest is seen as carefree and fun-loving. “The middle child is put in a position of having to find themselves and establish their role, where they fit and what they’re going to be known for,” says Dr. Maidenberg. Struggling with self-esteem can lead middle children to overspend for the sake of appearances or indulge in retail therapy. Learn more about middle child syndrome.

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They don’t have a clear identity

You have to find your own niche since you’re stuck in the middle.”The middle child struggles with forming their own unique identity,” says Wallace. “They aren’t the oldest, nor the youngest. They must find their own way to stand out in the family and often turn to creative ways of standing out.” That’s why middle children are often the class clown, family artist, or an entertainer trying to claim the spotlight. They may have a rebellious streak, too. “Sometimes they may become engaged in negative attention-seeking behaviors such as dying their hair purple,” says Wallace. And if you’re in the middle of many kids, you’ll struggle to establish an identity and get attention. Middles are most likely to move far from home once they grow up, partly because they’re seeking a clear identity after having spent their early years sandwiched between siblings.

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They’re underestimated

They have to prove themselves to others. Since they’re underestimated, that can work against them. They have to work harder to overcome people’s negative preconceived notions of them. “We know that there are birth order stereotypes that might influence people’s impressions,” says Dr. Salmon.

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They can overcome a lot

Just take a look at this list of famous tweeners: Madonna, Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry, Mark Zuckerberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Barbara Walters, Britney Spears, Anne Hathaway. Next, learn about some famous sibling rivalries.

Stacey Feintuch
Stacey Feintuch contributes to RD.com's Health and Relationship sections. Her articles have appeared in Woman's World, Boca Raton Observer and Healthywomen.org, among other sites and publications. She earned her MA in magazine writing from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and her BA in journalism from The George Washington University.