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'Middle child syndrome' isn't what you think — here's what it really means

You’ve probably heard the term ‘middle child syndrome’ before. In fact, you may even have been accused of having it. It’s the belief that children who are born with both older and younger siblings are resentful because they have been somewhat ignored in between the firstborn favourite and the baby. 

Despite its widespread popularity, many of these beliefs about middle children are not grounded in any real science. In fact, psychologists say many of the traits associated with the so-called “syndrome” are likely a result, not a cause, of these ideas. But researchers have found that some middle children do possess some similarities which they think may be a result of their birth order.

We spoke to Dr Catherine Salmon, a psychology professor at the University of Redlands in California and co-author of the book “The Secret Power of Middle Children,” to try and separate fact from fad. Salmon and her colleagues have spent the last two decades studying thousands of middle children. She spoke to Business Insider about what she found out.

First, says Salmon, middleborns tend to be less parent-oriented, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about relationships.

In one 1998 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 they were asked who in their family they would turn to for help — parents or siblings. While first and lastborns opted for mum or dad, middleborns generally chose their brothers or sisters.

It wasn’t that they felt disenfranchised from their family. Instead, middle children probably spent a little bit less time with their parents and as a reflection of that, felt a little less close to them.

Middle children were also more likely to view their friends as their main resources, more so than first and lastborns. Salmon said this does tend to mean that they have really good social skills as they value those relationships a lot, so they put a lot into them and are thus great friends to have.

According to one of Salmon’s studies, middleborns might also make great partners as they tend to get along with many different personality types. Salmond told us that middleborns are like ‘Type O blood,” in a way, because they go with everybody. When you get two lastborns or two firstborns together, there can often be conflict because of their similar personalities. Middles, however, are already great at negotiating and much more willing to go with the flow.

Middles also seem to be less likely to cheat on their partners, said Salmon. She said this is probably a reflection of how much they value their non-genetic relationships.

Middle children may be more susceptible to peer pressure, but they also tend to be more open-minded.

Salmon also said that her research suggests that middleborns are more susceptible to peer pressure than first or lastborns. For example, she said, middle children tend to show slightly higher rates of things like willingness to try different types of drugs. 

Research also suggests middles tend to be more open-minded and willing to try new things than their older or younger siblings. Salmon thinks this might be because middleborns are usually forced to be more independent, which gives them an opportunity to find their own path and could make them more likely to experiment.

In one study, for example, Salmon asked participants about their beliefs in things that, at the time, were considered controversial. Compared with older or younger children, middle children were more open to entertaining those kinds of ideas too. 

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