What Is The Birth Order Theory?

Updated January 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We all come from families of different sizes. Some of us are only children, while others are the eldest, middle, or youngest children. Many believe that one’s birth order can have certain impacts on personality. Is there any truth to that? We're going to dive into birth order theory in this article.

Raising Children Is Challenging For New And Experienced Parents

The History Of Birth Order Theory

The birth order effect has been observed since the early 20th century. Psychologist Alfred Adler was one of the first people to bring the birth order theory into the mainstream, suggesting that it influences what kind of adult people will grow up to become. He believed that many personality changes could come into effect, depending on one's birth order. For example, the firstborn may be more spoiled or more strict, while the middle child may often feel left out.

Since then, there have been other contributions to the theory of birth order. Studies have yielded mixed results, and itis difficult to study birth order in isolation, due to all of the factors that can influence a child's behavior and development. Here are some of the traits birth order is said to change

Personality And Birth Order

There is much debate as to whether your birth order has an impact on your personality. First, it's hard to research scientifically. There are so many factors that play into one's development of a personality that you can't isolate them. For example, if one is born later than the others and has a different personality, was it because of their birth order, or was it because of another factor, such as parenting style or financial privilege? If someone has more children, they may have less money. On the other hand, if parents work in higher-paying jobs, they may have more money to expend on children and their needs.

This means that it is difficult to figure out what is because of birth order and what is because of other factors. The firstborn may have more of a spoiled personality because, at one point, they were the only child of parents who were starstruck by them, and later-born children may have different rules in place.

Birth Order And Intelligence

There have been some studies that have said that those who were first born may have a higher IQ than the children who follow, but with any of these studies, there are several factors which can determine IQ.

Also, a first born child has fewer children in the home to talk to and instead may associate more frequently with the adults. Siblings can play with each other at home, while only children can only talk to their parents, on most occasions.

Firstborns may have a higher verbal ability as well. Again, this may be due to being associated with only adults, as opposed to children who have fewer verbal abilities. However, this is up for debate. There have been studies that say that there is no relation between birth order and intelligence, and those who have higher IQs because of their birth order are products of other factors, such as income. Also, if a child is told throughout their life that they are inferior, that may have an impact on their performance.

Birth Order And Sexuality

Another popular birth order theory is fraternal birth order. This claims that if a man has older brothers, there's a higher chance that he will be homosexual. The number of older brothers increases the likelihood, but by how much is unknown. Some studies claim that an older brother increases the chances by about 30%, while other studies say 15%. There have been other studies that have said that the birth order only accounts for 1/7th of all homosexual men.

Are women who have older sisters likely to become lesbians? No. There is not yet any evidence to support maternal birth order.

So why might this phenomenon occur? There are some theories, but the best theory is that it develops before the baby is even born. It's a byproduct of evolution that makes the later-born son more likely to be homosexual. In our primitive days, fewer heterosexual siblings meant less competition when it comes to mating and, thus, a family that is less likely to fight.

However, with all of these so far, it's hotly debated. Some studies have had little conclusive evidence that a man is more likely to be homosexual if they have older male siblings. There may be other factors that contribute to their sexuality, and you can't just assume that their birth order is the main or only contribution.

The Only Child Stereotype

Raising Children Is Challenging For New And Experienced Parents

We all may be familiar with the stereotype of an only child: spoiled, entitled, or bratty. In a sense, if the parents do not have any other children to raise, they may focus entirely on their only child. As they don't yet have parenting experience, they may be more permissive compared to future children. Also, parents may have more money if they only have one child, and thus can spend more on them. 

However, studies seem to indicate there is little truth to the stereotype. Conversely, parents can have high expectations toward their sole child, which can influence their children to grow up to be perfectionists. Sometimes, with fewer children to watch, parents can be stricter and more consistent with rules.

It's purely situational. Some only children may be spoiled due to their upbringing, while others may not be. This stereotype can apply to the youngest child as well. little conclusive evidence that a man is more likely to be homosexual if he has older male siblings

Middle Child Syndrome

Another birth order phenomenon, which isn't a real, diagnosable disorder, is middle child syndrome. As the name implies, it entails the effects a middle child may sometimes feel as a result of their birth order. The first child may have a strict upbringing, while the youngest child may have a spoiled upbringing, or vice versa. It's sometimes suggested that the middle child gets ignored amid all this chaos, and may feel neglected by their parents.

Again, this phenomenon may be purely situational. Some parents treat their children equally, while others do have their favorites, or some adjust their parenting styles over time. Sometimes the middle child is growing up during the transitional period between opposite parenting styles, and this can cause some negative effects.

Is Birth Order Theory True?

You may have seen a pattern in your family or in other families which confirms some of the suggestions of birth order theory. Yes, there may be some differences in personality, intelligence, or sexuality depending on one's birth order, but the science is conflicting. It is difficult for studies to replicate the same results, as every family is different. If the circumstances change from the birth of the first to the second born, it can affect how the child is raised, thus impacting their personality.

To summarize, the science is still out. We may never fully know the secrets of the birth order, if there are any patterns to be discovered. There is more than likely some impact the birth order has on personality, but how the child is raised makes a more significant impact. Of course, you could say that the birth order has an impact on parenting, so it's a chicken and egg situation that may never be fully hatched. There is also the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If a parent believes their later children will be more spoiled, then it may happen.

It's hard to say what's caused by birth order and what is not. However, your child's behavior can change as they grow up. If you have some behavior you want to change, then your best choice would be to seek the help of a healthcare professional.

Support For Improving Your Parenting Style

Effective parents can raise their children to become well-adjusted individuals regardless of birth order, but parenting is often challenging. Those who want the best out of all their children may benefit from seeking therapy to make sure they're following best practices. There is no shame in having a professional evaluate your skills or make suggestions to help improve your parenting.

Many parents may find online therapy to be an advantageous alternative to in-person therapy, the latter of which is traditionally more costly and time-consuming. Between working, parenting, and nurturing a relationship with one’s partner (if applicable), it can be difficult to find the time to devote to other important priorities! With online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can schedule an appointment at a convenient time and in a preferred location – such as your office during a lunch break or at home while your kids are away. Removing the barriers inherent to attending in-person therapy may help a parent feel more receptive to seeking support.

In a pilot controlled open study, 12 participants participated in a web-based intervention to gauge changes in their levels of psychological flexibility, avoidance, emotional control, parental stress, and coping skills. The results not only affirmed improvements in all of the aforementioned factors, but additionally supported positive psychological adjustment in their children. These improvements were achieved over an average span of 64.2 days, with a range of 37 to 100 days. This finding implies that online therapy may help parents achieve more timely results than in-person therapy, which can last for months or even years.


There is no right way to parent a child, and a child’s birth order does not limit who they can become or what they can accomplish in life. While it’s interesting to read about birth order theory, a therapist may be able to have more insightful, evidence-based practices to help improve your parent-child relationships. Talk to a counselor today and see what you can do to improve your parenting.

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