Birth Order Theory: Insights Into Your Personality
Updated May 12, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC
The study of personality and its formation has interested researchers and scientists for centuries. Personality refers to an individual's different patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling. People's personalities encompass nearly every aspect of their human experience. Studying personalities usually falls into two categories:
- Understanding differences in people's personality characteristics- like temperament, sociability, and motivation
- Discovering how various parts of a person come together as a whole
There are many theories of how personality forms, adapts, and is affected by one's external environment. One personality study focuses on a person's birth order. Birth order theory was developed by Alfred Adler in the twentieth century; it stated: the order in which a child was born impacted his or her personality. We will go over this further in this article.
Birth Order Theory: Adler's Research
Alfred Adler was born just outside Vienna in 1870. He started his medical career as an ophthalmologist; then, switched to general practice in a less affluent part of Vienna. In 1907, he met Sigmund Freud and developed a working relationship with him and other prominent psychoanalysts of the time. As Adler progressed in his career, he sought to create a psychological movement based on a holistic view of an individual. Unlike Freud, Adler believed the social and community aspects of a person's life were just as important as internal thoughts and emotions. Adler's desire to understand how social factors influence personality extended to child development. His birth order theory described how the family environment shaped a child's thoughts and behaviors.
What Birth Order Theory Is Not
Birth order personality traits are not necessarily present when a child is born into a family. For example, the first child is not born with particular personality traits ingrained in his or her psyche. Instead, in birth order theory, Adler illustrates how family environments and dynamics play a role in shaping personality during a child's formative years. Though every family is different, there are many similarities between the interactions of parents and children, as well as siblings, as a family grows and develops.
The Family's Role in Birth Order Personality Traits
Most researchers agree there are several influences shaping personality. Common factors include:
- Biological: Children inherit many traits and features from their parents. These include intelligence, courage, and physical features.
- Social: By interacting with others in an individual's social circle, children learn behaviors and thought patterns from their experiences.
- Cultural: A child growing up within a culture consciously or unconsciously adopts traits consistent with the culture's beliefs and norms.
- Physical Environment: An individual's surroundings often impact the development of personality. For example, the personalities of those growing up in a rural area are often very different from those living in an urban environment.
- Situational: As a child grows, they face different situations, which help them adapt and change aspects of their personality. This could be meeting new friends, experiencing a trauma, or, of course, welcoming a new sibling.
When looking at these factors, we see family life can incorporate all of these. Since most children's lives are, at first, shaped by everything going on in the family, it is no wonder birth order theory has remained relevant throughout the decades.
The following traits are general examples of how birth order and personality are related. Of course, many other factors could impact the development of a child's personality; some will be discussed later.
These children tend to get much more attention from adults than a child with siblings. This means many of their early interactions involve individuals significantly older than them. These interactions can make them feel like "tiny adults," and they can seem more mature than peers with siblings. Traits include:
- Mature for their age
- Uses adult language
- Pampered and often spoiled
- Enjoys being the center of attention
- Feels unfairly treated when not getting their own way
- May refuse to cooperate with others
- Desire to be more like adults, so may not relate well with peers
- Can be manipulative to get their way
Since the firstborn child is used to being an only child until the little brother or sister comes along, he or she may exhibit some of the characteristics of an only child. Also, the firstborn may have these birth order personality traits:
- Achiever and leader
- Feels must have superiority over other children
- May have difficulty when the second child is born, such as feeling unloved or neglected
- Can be controlling and focused on being correct
- Uses good (or bad) behavior to regain parents' attention
- Bossy or authoritarian
- Strives to please others
- Can be protective or helpful towards others
The second child and middle children began their lives, sharing the attention of their parents with the firstborn. By having an older sibling as a role model, the second child often tries to catch up with them. Adler believes the second child is most likely to be better adjusted in life. A second child could be:
- More competitive
- Lacking the undivided attention of parents
- A people pleaser
- A peacemaker
- Developing abilities the first child doesn't exhibit to gain attention
Many have heard of the "middle child syndrome" and the difficulties these children can present. Considering the significant changes they deal with early in life, it's no wonder they could become frustrated or resentful. Not only do they lose their "youngest child" status, but they also have to share their attention with older and younger siblings. Middle children of bigger families often aren't as competitive as single middle children, since their parents' attention is spread thinner. Middle children in bigger families are more prone to using cooperation to get what they want. Middle child traits include:
- Can feel life is unfair
- Can be even-tempered
- May feel unloved or left out
- Doesn't have the rights and responsibilities of the oldest sibling or the privileges of the youngest.
- Outgoing and rambunctious
- Learns to deal with both older and younger siblings
- Treating younger siblings rougher
- Feel "squeezed" in the family environment
The last born child cannot be dethroned by a younger sibling. The "baby" of the family tends to get more attention from parents, since the older siblings are developing and becoming more independent. Traits of the youngest child:
- Charming and outgoing
- Attention seeker
- Can behave like the only child
- Feels inferior- like everyone is bigger or more capable
- Expects others to make decisions and take responsibility
- May not be taken seriously
- Can become "speedier" in development to catch up to other siblings
Other Factors Influencing Birth Order Personality
As we all know, each family is different and has unique dynamics. Birth order alone will not determine the complexities of one's personality. As child and family develop and evolve, certain circumstances may impact the personality of a child.
Blended or Step-Families
When two parents remarry, especially when children are in their formative years, the family unit goes through a period of disorientation and competition. For example, two firstborns in the new family will search for their "place" and may compete to keep their "first born status."
Differences in Ages
When there are gaps of three or more years between siblings, it is common for the birth order to restart. In a family with many children, this could create birth order subgroups.
Health and Mental Issues
A child born with significant physical or neurodevelopmental disabilities can remain in the "youngest" position regardless of the birth order. This impacts the psychological birth order position of the other children.
Gender of Siblings
The most psychological competition occurs between children of the same gender similar in ages.
Death of A Sibling
The impacts of a child's death are devastating for families. This includes the personalities of the surviving siblings. Some children may adapt by developing overindulgent tendencies. Also, a glorification of the deceased child can occur- where other siblings could never live up to the pristine image of the deceased sibling.
An adopted child often has special circumstances in the family dynamic. For parents with difficulties conceiving, having an adopted child may be seen as a special gift. These parents have a greater tendency to spoil or overindulge the child. When an adopted child comes into an established family, he or she may find difficulties fitting into the dynamic. Emotional struggles due to not being wanted by birth parents and not fitting in with biological siblings are common. Sometimes these feelings of inadequacy warrant therapy.
Does the Correlation of Birth Order and Personality Exist?
Studies have linked higher intelligence to family's eldest children. This could be due to the fact that parents have more emotional and intellectual resources to give when fewer children are present in the family.
In a study of more than 20,000 participants, however, data revealed no significant effects of birth order of the Big Five personality traits. These include extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
Does this mean birth order theory should be discarded? Probably not. This only proves the formation of personality is not simply explained by a child's birth position in the family. Multiple factors, including socioeconomic status, parental attitudes, gender roles, and social influences, also contribute to shaping an individual's personality. Birth order may explain some people's tendencies, but everything going on in a person's life must be considered.
If you are struggling with emotional issues, a psychotherapist may be able to illuminate how your personality plays a part. Psychotherapy can help find the root cause of some issues while allowing you to discover the necessary changes needed to live a happy, fulfilling life. If a traditional therapy setting is too cost-preventative or not a feasible option, consider using affordable online counseling through BetterHelp. The licensed and accredited therapists of BetterHelp can give you a new option for regaining emotional control of your life. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing issues related to family and birth order.
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Your personality may or may not have anything to do with your birth order. There are many things you can do to become attuned to yourself and your personality. If you find your personality is causing you stress, a therapist can help. The only thing standing between you and your peace is a few clicks. Take the first step today.