Do you believe in Middle Child Syndrome?

I got an email from a high school classmate the other day asking me if I was interested in attending my 15 year high school reunion. I’m not at all interested in attending, but thinking about my high school experience got me to thinking about my best friend from HS, whom I haven’t been in touch with in about 8 years.

My friend (whom I’ll call Mary, not her name) and I started drifting apart long before we ceased communication altogether. We were roommates in college during our Freshman year, but about a month after arriving at college, she acquired this boyfriend to whom she started devoting every waking minute. I, being of the boyfriendless type, was forced to find a group of friends that excluded her, some of whom became the best friends I’ll ever have in this lifetime and whom I still keep in touch with.

The thing is, the more distance I got from Mary, the more aware I became of some extremely annoying personality traits that I’ve come to class as Middle Child Syndrome. I’ve Googled around a bit, and this appears to be a relatively common phenomenon. Apparently, MCS commonly exhibits itself in two very different ways (and yes, I’m aware that not all MC turn out this way)…the MC often becomes an expert negotiator and peacekeeper, or the MC has a tendency to try to compensate for the “non-special” status by trying to present themselve as unique.

It’s the latter set of behaviors that, in retrospect, I can pinpoint in Mary. At various points during our friendship, Mary established (or attempted to establish) the following unique characteristics about herself:

  • She had unusually sensitive hearing
  • She had unusually sensitive sense of smell
  • She had much thicker hair than most people, and her boyfriend had confirmed that she actually had two (count 'em, TWO!!) hairs growing out of each follicle on her head
  • She had perfect pitch
  • She had breasts that, while admittedly small, were perfectly shaped
  • She had the healthiest fingernails of anyone she knew
  • She alone could appreciate what an amazing car the Pontiac GTO was
  • She was always the “first” one to appreciate the genius of whatever particular band/artist she was fascinated with at a given moment
  • She had the most adventurous sex life of anyone in our circle of friends

These are just the things I remember off the top of my head. Some of them seem petty and silly when you look at them written out that way, but keep in mind that I picked these up over about 15 years of friendship. They’re just representative of her entire persona, in which she always seemed to have a compelling need to establish herself as being uniquely different (read: superior) from everyone else.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I think that her family life contibutes heavily to this overcompensation for what I can only assume were feelings of inadequacy. Not only was she the middle child, but her older sister developed juvenile diabetes when she was about 8 years old, and was subsequently given even more babying attention than the eldest child would normally get. Mary’s younger sister also got the sort of attention afforded to the baby of the family. So, not only was Mary stuck in the MC role, but she was constantly fighting for attention between the sick elder child and the babied younger child.

I haven’t seen such an obvious (or at least seemingly obvious) case of MCS since my friendship with Mary faded, but I think about her a lot and wonder if she ever got over it or if that “hey, look at me, I’m unique and special in every way” mindset persists. I wonder too about the combination of elements that contribute to this reaction to being the MC, as my MC brother doesn’t exhibit these behaviors at all.

What do y’all think? Do you know anyone like this? Have any of you MC out there ever noticed this sort of thing about yourselves?

My boyfriend is a MC, but he doesn’t have any of those negative personality traits. In fact, he’s the most normal and adjusted of his siblings. HOWEVER, I think he has some confidence problems resulting from being the MC. He was never given the attention that his older brother and younger sister received, and I think as a result, he developed a low self-esteem in some regards.

I’m a middle child but just the opposite of your frined. There is nothing special about me at all. In fact I have such low self-esteem it isn’t even funny.

I think there is another important aspect to “middle child syndrome”/“baby child syndrome”: the behavoir of a child can have a big role in deciding whether or not they ARE the middle child. For example, I’m the 5th of 6. I was born six years after my next-oldest brother, and my sister was brn 20 months after me. I am the first type of middle child you describe: easy going, peacemaker, calm My baby sister, on the other hand, fits the stereotype of a baby: needy, clingy, always anxious, always needing a disproportionate amount of attention.

The thing about this is that both my sister and I displayed these traits starting at birth. Even in the brief period when I was the “baby”, I was placid, easy-going, and low-maintenince. My sister, on the other hand, cried whenever she was put down for hte first 18 months of her life. My mother is quite clear about the fact that if my sister had been born first, I would never have happened: she was just too much work to make thinking about another child possible. So no matter what, my sister would have been the baby of the family. And I was the kind of kid that made having another one seem possible, and so invited my parents to keep reproducing.

I think low self esteem is probably a primary trait of middle child syndrome.

Those features of Mary’s “uniqueness” were most likely her way of compensating for the inherit low self esteem she feels, whether conscious of it or not.

Yes, I am a middle child and have suffered from and compensated for low self esteem for eons.

I think what you’ve identified would more accurately be called Mary Syndrome. I just don’t see much similarity to the MCs I know.

I think that No Clue Boy has pegged what I was trying to get at…Mary’s constant going on about the things that made her “unique” were her coping method of dealing with her low self esteem. She was constantly looking for things about herself that would make her stand out, even if the things she latched on to were sort of ridiculous.

Some people, whether MCs or not, just overcompensate for their feelings of inadequacy. The more aware someone is of their real feelings, the less likely they are to be an ass.

I would suspect that “Mary” has never felt quite like she fits in and that things in life have failed to work out the way she thinks they should have.

Funny what our parents can inadvertantly do to us, no?

I didn’t want to muddy the waters by going into this in my OP, but Manda JO’s comments about her parents made me think I should throw this into the mix as well.

I mentioned that I think that Mary’s particular family dynamic contributed to her taking on the “MC with low self esteem road”, but I didn’t mention that Mary and I also discussed numerous times that she always felt that her parents hadn’t really wanted kids. Her parents didn’t have any children until their late 30’s, then they had Mary and her two sisters one after the other, three years in a row.

Mary talked often about how, although her parents provided a good home and that they never wanted for anything material, she always had the sense growing up that they’d have preferred to remain childless. They never said it outright, but they gave off an aura of finding their children to be an inconvenience and that they couldn’t wait until they were all off on their own so that they could resume their quiet life.

I think that Mary felt that her parents loved their children in an abstract sort of way, and always fulfilled their parental responsibilities, but that there wasn’t a lot of warmth. And further, what warmth there may have been was largely sucked up by the needs of her sister and her constant medical care.

So, in addition to wondering about the MC phenomenon, I wonder how much one’s specific parenting contributes to whether a MC falls into one of these sorts of patterns of behavior. Ringo mentions that none of the MCs he knows show these behaviors, so it’s certainly a possibility that while the tendencies are there, conscientious parenting can alleviate the more obvious effects.

I’ve found that I am a lot like this. Only I’m not the middle child, I’m the oldest of 2.

Yup. It’s true. And I oughta know; I’m the middle one of triplets.

Really? I’m not doubting you, but you are the one of three sibs in one batch who popped out in the middle? I think that’s interesting.

I’m the middle child, and I have had some serious problems with self-confidence and the like, but it’s not from being the middle child.

I am 1 1/2 years younger than my older sister, and 8 1/2 older than my younger sister. With that sort of time difference, I can only deduce a coincidental association.

Suggested: Frank Sulloway.

I guess I kind of fit into the MCS category. I have an older brother and a younger sister, about 2-2.5 years between us. My brother was the, bigger, stronger boy, so he could do a lot of things I (a girl) couldn’t at the same age, (example, when we got licenses, he could drive whenever/wherever, but I had a curfew - which I ignored because it was plainly unfair to me. Oddly, my parents still deny that there was a curfew and that they treated me differently…weird). My sister is a VERY VERY demanding, manipulative, typical centre-of-attention-drama-queen baby of the family. She has my parents wrapped around her little finger, and can milk it all the more because she has had severe arthritis since the age of 14. For her, its an excuse to not actually do anything for herself, such as cook, do laundry, clean, or learn to drive (my parents and her manservant SO driver her EVERYWHERE, at any time of day).

(Ok, is my resentment showing THAT much)? I had a rough reading week when I went home this year and was basically told to “go somewhere else” to sleep because my sister needed to do homework, and she couldn’t POSSIBLY be quiet about it.

So my parents basically gave my brother a lot of freedom, and although they complained about it when he dropped out of university, and complain about some of his lazy tendencies, he has a very thick skin and it doesnt bother him at all. He just does his own thing. My sister…well, I think I’ve described her ok, and since my parents wait on her hand and foot because of her arthritis, she doesn’t really need to be concerned about what she can or can’t do.

Me, on the other hand, am not as thick-skinned as my brother, and I don’t have the abilities (or desire) to manipulate my parents. I just can’t do it. When my parents basically told me to go elsewhere, and when my mom told me that I “didn’t need to sleep that much, I thought you were an insomniac?”, that REALLY REALLY hurt me. I always tried to be helpful, and to not ask for too much from my parents - I would wear the same clothes for YEARS as a kid/teenager because I couldn’t afford new ones myself and didnt want to ask my parents for them, while my sister has new clothes basically every week, and my brother could easily bring himself to ask for the cash to go shopping.

So I did/do have self-esteem issues about it. I very often feel that I’m not good enough, and that I need to compensate for it. When I went home for reading week, my parents placed me right back into the role of “the one who’ll drive [my sister], or empty the dishwasher, or maybe make supper for us, since you cook all the time at your own place”. I was the “helpful one”, and if I dared say no, I got yelled at for being “jealous” or “irrational”, depsite the fact that expecting any of these things from my siblings is a f*cking joke.

So I can be bitchy. I love sites like the SDMB, because it gives me loads of trivia and facts that I can slam into my parents/siblings/friends faces, and know that I am right, and so a little bit superior, if only for an instant. I think I probably have done things like claim I have sensitive hearing (high-pitched noises actaully do bother me), or claim that I could appreciate something better than someone else did. I can be very condesending at times, and I try really hard to always make sure that I’m right in what I say, so that no one can put me down about it (of course, I’m shy and dont talk much, so I’m not right all that often!) I like to imagine that people see me as being intelligent, or mysterious, or something, but I probably just look like a quiet, geeky girl who takes some things WAY too seriously.

I just want to say now that I don’t hate my parents. I never lacked for anything, and I do know that they love me. The thing is, they do things, or behave in ways that they aren’t always really aware of, and obviously it has an effect on me, and on my siblings. Environmental effects and all that. Its also just that I recently had to face this, and accept the fact that I could never live at home again, and that I have very fundamental difference of opinion when it comes to how my parents have chosen to do some things (especially with my sister), and how I would choose to do them myself. I guess its a bit of a hard reality to wake up one day and realise that things aren’t quite what they seemed to be for 21+ years.
I’m sorry about this hijack/rant, but once I started writing, I just had to continue, and now that its writen, I just have to post it. Its probably somewhat disjointed, since its more train-of-thought than coherent-writing, but I think I need to express this to other people, and I guess thats what these boards are for.


I know one mother who claims her second son is the classic middle child. Her first child is intelligent, independent, and ambitious. Her youngest has mental and emotional problems. Her second child tries desperately to be an expert on something, but he pretty much mouths urban legends or skewed opinions as fact. If someone asks him for his point of view for attacking a problem, rather than saying “I think…” he’ll say “You need to <do whatever>” and not consider any other alternative. If he tries something and it doesn’t work for him, then it won’t work for anyone, all evidence to the contrary.

I’m inclined to believe it’s just the way he is and not a characteristic of being 18 months younger than one sib and 18 months older than the other, but his mother insists otherwise. Maybe, maybe not. I’m no expert. I think he’s just a jerk.

All I can tell you is that UncleBeer is the middle child… I’ll let you all draw your own conclusions from there.

I’m a MC, and don’t really fit the categories. I think there’s a second-child syndrome, but it’s hard to have certain traits deeply rooted in you because of a later sib unless s/he’s right on your heels, already there while you’re still forming.

In my case, I was 6 when my little sister came along, so I certainly think being a second child had a lot more to do with who I am than being a middle child.

My understanding is that a second child can go one of two ways: either compete head-to-head with First Child, or (more likely) realize that the #1 child has already staked his/her claim to a particular piece of territory, and strike out in a different direction.

Take my older sister and me. Her family nick as a kid was ‘chatterbox’; I was introverted. We are both quite intelligent, but since she was already the student who excelled, I was the one who goofed off and never lived up to his academic potential. (Until grad school, anyway. :)) She’s very musically inclined; I don’t play an instrument, and you don’t want to hear me sing. Ad infinitum. Even now, when it doesn’t matter anymore, we’re so different that we just don’t ‘get’ each other, despite being only a year apart in age.