Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help their Children Meet the Challenges of their Birth Orderby Meri Wallace
Birth order has a powerful effect on children's emotional development, on their self-esteem, and on their sense of well-being. The youngest child, the firstborn, the middleborn, twins, and the only child all have specific birth order issues that, if not atted to early on, can impair their functioning and their interpersonal relations at home and at school, and can… See more details below
Birth order has a powerful effect on children's emotional development, on their self-esteem, and on their sense of well-being. The youngest child, the firstborn, the middleborn, twins, and the only child all have specific birth order issues that, if not atted to early on, can impair their functioning and their interpersonal relations at home and at school, and can follow them into adulthood. Parental birth order, too, plays an important role, as do such other factors as gender and family size. To understand these birth order blues, the author, an expert in parent-child relationships, first raises parents' awareness of the impact of birth order upon children. She then shows how to identify their children's birth order problems, often disguised by behaviors such as underachievement or aggression, and suggests how they can resolve these issues and prevent negative behavioral patterns from developing.
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Birth Order Blues
How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order
By Meri Wallace
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1999 Meri Wallace, M.S.W.
All rights reserved.
The Birth Order Experience
"My three-year-old son, Sam, is going crazy," a distraught mother announced at one of our evening parent support group meetings. Her extreme anxiety permeated the air, and the mothers and I drew in close to listen to her and to help.
Slowly, she began to unveil what was causing her to feel so worried. Her son had suddenly changed from an angelic, complaisant child into an aggressive one. She gave an example: The night before, she had come home and found her son tearing all of her daughter's drawings off the wall in a frenzy. What had caused such a reaction? We began to dig a little deeper beneath the surface and tried to piece together what had happened.
Apparently, Sam had been building an airplane out of the couch cushions. Five-year-old Elizabeth had plunked herself down on one of them, and when he asked her to move, she refused. No amount of pleading or tugging at her could get her to budge. Finally, feeling exasperated, he ran into her room and started yanking her works of art off the wall. Then she moved.
As we talked, it became clear that this pattern of interaction between the two children was becoming a daily occurrence. Gradually, I helped this mother see that her son's behavior, which she thought was so bizarre, had to do with his being the younger child in the family. He was acting this way because he was upset. In fact, what was happening with Sam naturally occurred in families. For three years his older sister had dominated him, and because she was so much stronger, he often felt helpless to fight back. Now, at a stage in his development when he was feeling a greater sense of self, he was trying to stand up to her. Sam needed help in understanding what his struggle as a younger sibling was all about, and in finding more positive ways to deal with his emotions. He needed a great deal of emotional support, too.
Not only was Sam graphically demonstrating his struggle as a younger sibling, but Elizabeth was revealing her problems as an older sibling. Elizabeth had viewed Sam as an intrusion in her life for three years, ever since he moved into her space by being born. And she was upset, too. Now, Elizabeth was encroaching on his space as a way of getting back at him. Just as being the center of her parents' attention was taken away from her, she would take away something from her younger brother. Like Sam, Elizabeth also needed support and help in understanding her feelings and behavior related to her birth order position. She, too, must learn more appropriate ways of expressing herself.
Once we talked through the issues in the group, Elizabeth and Sam's mother relaxed. Her son was not crazy. She could do something; she would go home and try out our suggestions. As a matter of fact, she did and things got better.
But Sam and Elizabeth and their parents are not alone. When you scratch beneath the surface of many children's behaviors, you will find birth order issues, or problems related to their position in the family, as the source. For example, why isn't Jennifer able to succeed in math? Perhaps it is because her older brother is a math genius. Why does Jason fight his parents over every request they make? Maybe, because he is the oldest child, his parents ask him to do more than his younger sister. Why is middleborn Peter always acting like a clown? He might be acting this way because he feels his older and younger siblings are getting more attention than he is and negative attention seems better than none.
By a twist of fate, a child is born into a particular position in the family, and from this place, she will attempt to share her parents' love and attention and get her basic emotional and physical needs met. This setup naturally causes jealousies and resentment among siblings. However, as each child interacts with his parents and siblings, there will be some common characteristics in the positive and negative emotional experiences she will have, determined by her special spot in the family. These are all part of a child's birth order experience.
There is no doubt that there are certain advantages to each child's position in the family. The firstborn gets to stay up latest, the middle child has an older sibling to rely on and a younger sibling to look up to her, and the youngest gets to be the baby. It is true, too, that having a sibling can be a very pleasurable and positive experience for children. In fact, it is through this relationship that children receive their first lessons about how to love a peer, how to share, and how to empathize with others — skills that are then transferred to the world at large. However, what is essential to understand is that there are also some very difficult emotional challenges that children experience related to their birth order positions. These difficulties, such as being dethroned by a new baby, or feeling incompetent in relation to an older sibling, I will refer to as a child's birth order issues.
Some of the difficulties that the child encounters are related to the way he views himself, merely because of his birth order position. For example, a secondborn child may conclude, "I'm no good," because his older sister can write but he cannot. At other times, a child's unhappy feelings may be related to the way a parent responds to her in her particular position. For example, a parent may come down too hard upon a firstborn child, or fail to acknowledge a secondborn. A child's upset may also have to do with the way his siblings relate to him, such as the kind of domination the youngest child experiences because of the sibling power structure. The way the parent handles (or mishandles) the sibling relationship, such as showing favoritism to one child or endlessly comparing the two, can create problems for a child, as well. Such parental behaviors can cause a child to view herself negatively and even determine how one sibling treats another. If the parent always sides with the youngest, for example, the older siblings may be angered and vent their rage on him.
These experiences can definitely affect the child's self-esteem, her sense of well-being, and her behavior. As the child grows, any unresolved jealousy, anger, insecurity, or resentment resulting from these early childhood experiences will shape her development, and be played out at school, at work, and in her adult relationships. By taking the steps that I describe in the chapters ahead, you will learn how to help your children to feel better in their daily lives, build more positive family relationships, and prevent some future problems.
Our culture is not unfamiliar with the birth order experience. In the Bible, Cain, who was a firstborn son, was so jealous because his younger brother Abel was the preferred child that he actually killed him. Joseph's older brothers were so tormented by the fact that their father, Jacob, gave their youngest brother the famous coat of many colors and generally seemed to favor him that they planned to kill him; instead, they later ended up selling him into slavery. In Shakespearean plays, much intrigue and drama centers around the attempt of jealous younger brothers to wrench the crown away from their oldest brother who is the designated heir. Medieval laws of primogeniture, whereby the firstborn son inherited all the family lands, led to much suffering on the part of laterborns and strife among brethren.
Even very respected theorists have recognized the importance of the birth order experience in people's lives. According to Sigmund Freud, "the position of a child in the family order is a factor of extreme importance in determining the shape of his later life ..." Alfred Adler, an early follower of Freud who later founded his own school of "individual psychology," took special interest in birth order and its effect upon children in their families. Murray Bowen, one of the originators of family systems therapy, stated, "No single piece of data is more important than knowing the sibling position of people in the present and past generations."
This book does not set out to prove that birth order is the only shaping factor in a child's life. As a traditional psychotherapist, I certainly spend a great deal of time with patients focusing on how their early parent-child relationships (unrelated to having a sibling) or particular family events have affected their lives. Nor does this book set out to show definitive character traits resulting from an individual's birth order position. I do not believe that there are definitive outcomes — a firstborn child who is pushed to succeed, as firstborns often are, can become a high achiever or can cave in under the pressure. Unfortunately, many theorists have placed too much emphasis on this aspect of birth order — so much so, that developmental experts who fear pigeonholing children (and rightly so) completely minimize the effect of birth order on experience or disavow it altogether. I believe that this is unfortunate. As we will clearly see, acknowledging that birth order does affect children and learning how is extremely important to a family's well-being.
What this book does undertake is to show you that birth order is, in fact, one major aspect of a child's experience that has a powerful impact upon his emotions and his development. Though every child's experience is somewhat different, the following are some of the most common early childhood experiences of each child in the birth order.
The firstborn child basks in her parents' undivided love and attention for a period of time and often benefits emotionally and intellectually from this experience. She can emerge with a sense of security and self-confidence. However, she also faces some difficult emotional challenges. Her inexperienced, anxious parents often have very high expectations of her, and she can end up feeling very pressured to succeed. She experiences tremendous feelings of loss as she gives up her crib and must share her parents' love for the first time when her younger sibling is born. The firstborn child feels jealous because of the special care and attention her adorable little sibling gets; feels intruded upon, because the younger one tends to mess up whatever she is doing; and is resentful because she is generally expected to behave better and to do more. She may experience a great deal of anger, but since she has been warned not to hurt her younger sibling, she may feel frightened of her emotions and have a hard time managing them.
The secondborn child benefits from calmer, more self-confident parents and enjoys the special attention he receives as the baby. He also has the advantage of learning from and modeling his adored older sibling who can do a handstand and even read him a story. However, he often feels terribly inadequate because he cannot do as much as she can. Unfortunately, he lacks the understanding that the problem has to do with their age difference, not with a basic flaw in him. A secondborn child often feels jealous because his older sibling is always accomplishing new firsts. He feels dominated by his older sister, who tries to maintain her number one position by always criticizing him and telling him what to do. He often feels rejected by her and left out because with her superior verbal abilities and her ongoing new ventures, she monopolizes their parents' attention. He, too, feels angry but has trouble asserting himself with his stronger, more physically and verbally adept older sister.
The middle child gains from some of the positives of being both a younger and an older sibling. She has an older sibling to learn from, who can watch over her, and she has a younger sibling who looks up to her, whom she can nurture. But as a middle child she faces some of her own unique challenges. She feels upset about losing her role as the baby, and often feels left out and jealous because both her older and younger siblings command so much attention. She is extremely competitive with her siblings, too. She is constantly chasing after the older one to try and catch up with him, while rushing to stay ahead of the younger one who is closing in on her from behind. The middle child has another tough dilemma. She is not the oldest and not the youngest, so she must struggle to established her own identity.
Though these reactions seem natural and common enough, on a daily basis they can cause children to feel bad about themselves, angry with their parents and siblings, and even unloved.
Parents often miss what is going on. Sometimes this happens because they are too busy, or so unfamiliar with birth order issues that they cannot decipher what they see. Children often have such a hard time comprehending what they are feeling and putting their emotions into words that they cannot tell their parents what is bothering them, either. Sometimes, they are afraid to tell because they fear that their emotions are bad (how can they feel jealous of a brother?), especially if the adults have not been very accepting of these emotions. So they hold them in, instead. But holding in emotions can cause children to feel much internal pain and even depression.
Often when children are distraught, however, they will act out their emotions, as Sam did when he ripped Elizabeth's pictures off the wall. This negative behavior can then start up an unfortunate chain of events. The parents might react impulsively, yell at or punish the child, and never get to the bottom of the issue, leaving him feeling unsupported, misunderstood, and even angrier. He may even act up worse, bringing on yet another round of unhappy interactions with his parents. In the end, the child feels alone and miserable and the parents feel distant from their child and incompetent. And so family life carries on with all these unresolved feelings smoldering under the surface until the next incident occurs and these undying embers fuel the blaze.
When you become aware of each of your children's birth order issues, identify them when they arise, and learn how to intervene, you can really make a difference in your children's lives. You must also learn which of your own behaviors contribute to your children's problems, and how to avoid them. Once you understand the issues and become actively involved by using a positive phrase or action, you can help your children to overcome their problems. This book will show you how.
I first describe daily life through the eyes of a firstborn, secondborn, middleborn, only child, and a twin. You will see why each child feels a certain way, how his emotions affect his behavior, and how you can be of help. Please note that the relationships that I have discussed between the firstborn and the secondborn child can occur between any older and younger child in the family. I have discussed the twin experience because twins relate to each other in much the same way as any two siblings do, and even when they are born only moments apart, they establish their own special birth order. I have also included a chapter on only children because they, too, occupy a unique spot in a family. They are firstborn children without siblings.
In each chapter, a particular child (or two children in the case of twins) will represent a certain birth order position. Each child, whether a girl or a boy, is a composite of all the other children in that particular position that I have ever spoken with or heard about. Like characters in a play, they will bring to life the full flavor of their unique experience.
In fact, in the first three chapters, a real-life drama unfolds. We watch the natural development of a family as it grows from one to two to three children, and we see the effect these changes have upon each child.
Some of the children's emotions appear to overlap, such as experiencing rejection or feeling left out. Though these feelings seem to be only a hair's breadth away from each other, each actually casts a somewhat different hue in the spectrum of emotions, so it is treated separately.
As you read, you may find that some of the feelings and behaviors described in a chapter may apply to your child, while others may not. You will see that some of the feelings, such as jealousy, will show up in most chapters. This is because all children feel jealousy in their sibling relationships. However, in the middle child chapter, for instance, jealousy will be discussed in terms of what causes a middle child to feel that way. But you can certainly use some of the same strategies to help all of your children deal with the same emotion.
Following a description of each emotion, there is a section entitled "The Effect on the Child's Development." Here, I describe some ways in which the particular emotional experience might affect the child later on in life if the child's parents do not intervene.
I must strongly emphasize that these hypothetical outcomes are being presented not to forecast any definitive character traits, but only to alert you to the urgency of intervening when your child is young, so that you can help prevent these kinds of problems from developing. These possible results are also being presented to show you how your child's early emotional experiences can be played out in other areas of life, for example, at school or with friends, so that they can be easily identified and worked with, if and when they do occur.
Excerpted from Birth Order Blues by Meri Wallace. Copyright © 1999 Meri Wallace, M.S.W.. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Meri Wallace, M.S.W., is director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development. She is the author of Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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