Personality can develop from various sources and influences in a child's life, including birth order. Studying personality and its formation has interested researchers, psychologists, and scientists for centuries. Enduring characteristics, traits, and behavior can shape each person's unique adjustment to life.
Birth order theory suggests that while personality is mainly unpredictable, specific general characteristics can be linked to a person's birth order in their family. Birth order refers to the rank of siblings in relation to age. It's thought that parents intentionally or unintentionally assign roles based on birth order, which may impact a child’s personality development.
In this article, we'll explore the theories and studies behind personality development, focusing on birth order theory.
Birth Order Theory: Why It Matters
Theories on personality formation, adaptation, and environmental influences across cultures vary. The concept of birth order is often credited to Austrian psychoanalyst Alfred Adler in the early 1900s. He was one of the first to explore the idea that a person's place in their family tree could predict personality traits.
Adler believed that firstborn children typically have higher expectations placed upon them by parents and thus develop a greater sense of responsibility and ambition. He proposed that later-born siblings, on the other hand, were often treated more leniently by their parents compared to firstborns, leading them to become more rebellious and independent.
However, it is important to note that Adler's theories are not universally accepted, and a person's place in their family tree does not always dictate their personality traits. Ultimately, each person is unique and should be treated as such. Each person has strengths and weaknesses independent of their birth order.
What Birth Order Theory Is Not
Birth-order personality traits are not necessarily present when a child is born into a family. For example, firstborn children are not necessarily born with niche or particular personality traits ingrained in their psyche. Instead, in birth order theory, Adler illustrates how family environments and dynamics can shape individual psychology during a child's formative years. Although every family is different, there are similarities in the interactions between parents and children and siblings.
The Family's Role In Birth Order Personality Traits
Birth order research and studies show several influences shaping personality in addition to birth order. Common factors include:
- Biological: Children tend to inherit many traits and features from their parents. These can include intelligence, courage, and physical characteristics.
- Social: By interacting with others in an individual's social circle, children learn behaviors and thought patterns from their experiences, like those in the education system and beyond.
- Cultural: A child growing up within a culture consciously or unconsciously can adopt traits consistent with the culture's beliefs, ideas, 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 may differ from those living in an urban environment.
- Situational: As a child grows up, they face different situations, which may help them adapt and change their personality. These situations could include meeting new friends, experiencing trauma, or 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 makes sense that some psychologists have remained interested in birth order theory throughout the years since Adler first proposed his idea.
How Birth Order May Affect Personality
The following traits are general examples of how birth order differences and personality may be related. Of course, many other factors could impact the development of a child's personality; some of these reasons will be discussed further below.
These children tend to get much more attention from adults than a child with siblings does. 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 their peers with siblings. Traits may include:
- Maturity for their age
- Use of adult language
- A tendency to enjoy being the center of attention
- Refusal to cooperate with others
- A tendency to feel unfairly treated when not getting their way
- A desire to be more like adults, so may not relate well with peers
Since the firstborn child is used to being an only child until siblings come along, they may exhibit some of the characteristics of an only child. Also, the firstborn may have these birth order personality traits:
- Achiever and leader
- Feelings of superiority over other children
- Difficulty when the second child is born, such as feeling unloved or neglected
- A tendency to be controlling and focused on being correct about results
- Use of good (or bad) behavior to regain parents' attention
- A tendency to be bossy or authoritarian about rules
- A desire to please others
Second-born and middle children begin their lives with their parents' attention on the firstborn. Having an older sibling as a role model makes second-born and middle children try to catch up with older children. Adler believes the second child can be better adjusted. A second child may:
- Be more competitive
- Lack of the undivided attention of parents
- Be a people pleaser
- Be a peacemaker
- Develop abilities the first child doesn't exhibit to gain attention
- Be rebellious
- Be independent and not need the support of others
Many have heard of the "middle child syndrome" and the difficulties these children can present. They may become frustrated or resentful of the significant changes they experience early in life. Not only do they lose their "youngest child" status, but they also must compete for attention with older and later-born children.
Middle-born children in larger families are typically less competitive than single middle children. Their parents' attention can be spread thinner due to the dynamics of a bigger family. Middle children in bigger families may be more prone to use cooperation to get what they want. Middle children may demonstrate the following tendencies:
- Can feel life is unfair
- Can be even-tempered
- May feel unloved or left out
- May not have the rights and responsibilities of the oldest sibling or the privileges of the youngest
- May be adaptable
- Can be impatient
- May be outgoing and rambunctious
- May treat younger siblings more roughly
- Can feel "squeezed" in the family environment
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 may include the following:
- May be charming and outgoing
- Can be an attention seeker
- Behaves 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 That May Influence Birth Order Personality
Each family is different and has unique dynamics. The subject of birth order positions alone will not determine the complexities of a person’s personality. Certain circumstances or measures may impact a child's personality as children and families develop and evolve. Across different families, children of the same birth order can show diverse personality differences, especially across a large representative sample.
Blended Or Step-Families
When two parents remarry, especially when children are in their formative years, the family of origin often goes through a period of disorientation and competition. For example, two firstborns in the new family may search for their "place" and may compete to keep their "firstborn status."
Differences In Ages
When there is an age gap of three or more years between siblings, it is common for the birth orders to restart. In a family with many children, this could create birth order subgroups with varying birth order effects.
Health And Mental Issues
A child born with significant physical or neurodevelopmental disabilities can seem to remain in the "youngest" position regardless of birth order. It may impact the psychological birth order position of the other children.
Gender Of Siblings
Most psychological competition tends to occur between children of the same gender and similar ages. The competition, partly for parental attention, can start in childhood and move into young adulthood and beyond.
Death Of A Sibling
The impact of a child's death can be devastating for families. Some children may adapt by developing overindulgent tendencies. Also, a glorification of the deceased child can occur, whereby other siblings may never live up to the image of the deceased sibling. It can profoundly alter the birth order effect.
An adopted child often has special circumstances in the family dynamic. Having an adopted child may be seen as a special gift for parents with difficulties conceiving. These parents may have a greater tendency to spoil or overindulge the child. When an adopted child comes into an established family, they may find difficulties fitting into the dynamic.
Does A Correlation Between Birth Order And Personality Exist?
Multiple factors, including socioeconomic status, parental attitudes, gender roles, and social influences, can also shape an individual's personality. In a study of more than 20,000 participants, however, details revealed no significant effects of birth order of the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.
However, some research has linked higher intelligence to a family's older children. It could be because parents have more emotional and intellectual resources to give when fewer children are present in the home.
Gain Additional Insights Into Your Personality In Therapy
If you’d like to gain more insight into your personality or how your birth order shapes it, consider working with a mental health professional. With a therapist, you can explore how your early childhood experiences shape your current behavior and develop coping skills to help you navigate life’s challenges. Your therapist can also provide evidence-based strategies for managing challenging emotions and building healthy relationships.
If you are not interested in traditional in-person therapy, consider using online counseling through BetterHelp. Online therapy can be a convenient way to get mental health care. Research suggests that online treatment is as effective as in-person therapy and can often fit into your schedule more easily. You can speak with a therapist from your home or anywhere you have internet connection.
How does birth order affect the development of our personality?
According to Alfred Adler’s psychological theories, birth order affects personality development through its impacts on relationship dynamics, including both sibling relationships and parent-child interactions. Since a person’s family is almost always their first experience of connections with other people, it may shape the assumptions, habits, and strategies that individuals carry throughout their lives.
For example, Adler believed that eldest children were more prone to neuroticism. He thought that their experience of undivided parental attention in their early years, followed by the appearance of younger siblings who competed for attention, could lead to a sense of insecurity. On the other hand, he also believed firstborn children tended to form leadership skills early on due to the experience of teaching and protecting younger siblings.
There might also be biological effects of birth order. Some researchers have suggested that changes to a woman’s immune system following repeated births might have developmental impacts on the personalities of children born later. However, the evidence for this theory is currently very limited, and some research seems to contradict it.
In twins, birth order might appear to affect personality because the larger and healthier twin is often born first. This can mean that younger twins are more likely to have health and developmental problems, which may have long-term psychological impacts.
How does birth order affect socialization?
Birth order might affect socialization because of the different roles that siblings of different ages tend to assume within a family. The oldest child might feel a sense of responsibility for their younger siblings, causing them to develop a greater propensity for leadership. Youngest children, in contrast, might have to struggle for their independence when their older siblings get bossy. This could lead them to be more rebellious in later interactions. Middle children might find themselves taking on the role of mediators, causing them to develop strong interpersonal skills.
Is birth order an important factor in determining intelligence myth?
Some studies have found a possible birth order effect on intellectual achievement. A 2015 research paper reported that older children appeared to score slightly higher on measures of intelligence, as well as rating their own intelligence higher. Later borns tended to display slightly lower IQ along with lower intellectual confidence.
However, while the observed effect was statistically significant, it was quite small. There’s little evidence that birth order plays a major role in determining a person’s intelligence.
What are three arguments made to support that birth order does affect our personalities?
One common argument in favor of the idea that birth order can shape personality is that early childhood experiences are known to be important for many different long-term psychological outcomes, such as relationship attachment styles. Since the experiences of siblings may be different depending on their position in the family, it might make sense to expect them to be important in personality formation.
Another argument in favor of birth order effects is that parental attention may be important in forming cognitive abilities. Because children with fewer siblings receive more of their parents’ focus, they might have a slight advantage in building certain mental skills, which could in turn affect their personalities.
The third main argument supporting birth order personality effects is that this idea is backed by research. Although the birth order effects found so far have been small, many important shifts in scientific theories begin with the observation of seemingly minor phenomena.
Does birth order affect one's personality impression?
There’s currently not much evidence that birth order affects the kinds of personality traits that are most important in determining the impression an individual makes on others. Even in the study offering the strongest support for the effect of birth order on intelligence, researchers found no relationship between birth order and characteristics such as:
- Willingness to try new experiences
- Emotional stability
How can birth order impact a child's attitude and behavior?
Birth order might affect a child’s behavior through the differences in parental expectations for different family members. Parents may consciously or unconsciously assign older siblings to a leadership role, expecting them to care for and instruct their younger brothers or sisters. Younger children might receive less discipline because their parents are older or have less ability to monitor an individual’s behavior within a large family.
Predicting the exact outcomes of these kinds of expectations may be difficult, though. An eldest child expected to act as a teacher and protector for their siblings might embrace this role. However, if they’re given poor support from their parents or punished for their siblings’ misbehavior, it could lead to resentment and avoidance of responsibility.
Birth order might also play a role in determining mental health, which could have important behavioral effects. A 2021 study reported that later-born children appeared to have lower rates of mental disorders and higher rates of happiness and prosocial attitudes.
Some theories of birth order suggest that “psychological birth order” might matter more than actual birth order. In other words, a child’s perception of their place within the family might be the most important factor. It’s often said that if a child is born five years or more after their next-oldest sibling, their personality characteristics will be more similar to a firstborn.
Can birth order determine success or failure?
Despite the prevalence of stories in popular media about how many astronauts or Nobel Prize winners are firstborn children, birth order is unlikely to be a major factor in a person’s success or failure in life.
While many psychologists used to consider it very important, more recent studies with better methodological design have found little evidence for strong effects. Other elements, such as genetics, socioeconomic standing, developmental health, and life experiences, are likely to be substantially more important.
Does birth order seem like a good way to describe personality?
Many people use birth order as a shorthand for personality makeup, such as describing someone as a “typical middle child”. Yet many people have very different ideas about what this means in practice. For instance, some sources may describe oldest children as outgoing and independent, while others say that these people tend to be shy and cautious.
Because of these differences, and the lack of strong evidence in favor of birth order effects, these stereotypes may not be useful ways to describe someone’s personality.
Does birth order affect self-concept?
Some theories of birth order effects have suggested that a person’s family position might affect their self-concept. In these frameworks, older and only children were thought to have the highest self-esteem, while middle children were believed to have the lowest. Several studies in the 1980s and 1990s tested these theories in middle and high school students with mixed results. While some researchers reported significant birth order effects, others found that the evidence was weak and inconsistent.
More recent investigations have found little support for the idea that self-esteem is affected by birth order. There may not be enough evidence to definitively state that oldest, middle, and youngest children have different self-concept strengths.
Does birth order affect the behavior of children?
Birth order may have some effects on childhood behavior. Research on children aged 9-10 found the highest rates of cooperative, prosocial behavior among those who were latest in birth order. Eldest children seemed to be more prone to conduct problems and disruptive behavior. That said, these findings may need to be replicated before it’s possible to say definitively that birth order impacts behavior.
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