We all know that one person who acts as if he or she always has something to prove. While we may roll our eyes at their attention-grabbing behaviour, labelling it “classic middle child syndrome”, stereotypes based on birth order are rooted in psychology.

“Psychoanalysts refer to the Romulus and Remus complexes – two figures from Ancient Greek history,” explains Dr Amy Bailey, clinical psychologist and head of psychology at Kids First Medical Center (www.kidsfirstmc.com). “The Remus complex refers to the jealousy of the younger sibling: resentful of their more successful elder sibling and feeling forever in their shadow and, therefore, having a sense that they must strive to outdo them. The Romulus complex refers to an older sibling’s jealousy when a younger sibling arrives and makes them feel ‘dethroned’ as they have to get used to sharing their parents’ affection.

Bailey continues, “Middle child syndrome refers to the sense of isolation and feeling of exclusion a middle child can experience when they perceive the older sibling as getting all the privileges and the younger one all the attention.” According to the experts, these feelings can strike during toddlerhood. “Sibling rivalry can occur throughout childhood and adolescence and in some instances it can continue through to adulthood,” says Dr Bailey. “There is some evidence to suggest, however, that it can be most intense when a child is between two and four years old, or when the age gap between siblings is smaller. Particular events, such as birth of a new sibling, can trigger intense feelings of sibling jealousy.” 

Order of the day

While squabbling overs toys and shouting for attention are par for the course with young children in the house, birth order and number of siblings can have a marked impact on who we are in the long run. “Dr Alfred Adler was the first psychoanalyst to highlight the impact of birth order as one factor that may shape a person’s character,” says Dr Bailey. “He identified that the oldest child often develops a need for perfectionism and affirmation, caused by losing their parents’ undivided attention, and that they may work continually to try to gain this back. He hypothesised that the oldest child can be conscientious and dominant in social situations as they have been expected to set an example and been given responsibility for younger siblings. 

“Dr Adler described middle children as competitive, rebellious and consistent in attempting to be the best, as they have always had someone to compete with,” Dr Bailey continues. “They can also be diplomatic and the most flexible due to their ‘middle’ status. The youngest child may be selfish and dependent, as they have always been taken care of by others. However, this constant attention can enable them to be confident and comfortable around others.”

Dr Adler’s theory also included only children and multiple children. Dr Bailey says, “He believed that only children are used to having their parents’ sole attention so the transition to school, where they have to share the teacher’s, attention can be difficult. However, only children are often more mature and more comfortable around adults. Dr Adler postulated that with twins, one is usually seen as the older, stronger twin and this one usually becomes the leader. Twins can develop identify problems as they are treated as a unit rather than individuals.” 

A healthy dose of rivalry

Of course, a healthy amount of infighting is completely normal for siblings. Dr Ellie Roberts, psychologist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford, which has recently opened a clinic in Dubai Healthcare City (www.priorygroup.ae), says, “In an ordinary family, siblings are nearly always in competition with each other. This is normal and healthy. Having a sibling means that children learn to share, have to develop an understanding of the other and have to toughen up to criticism.”

Until children start developing a sense of individualism, it’s natural for them to strive to gain our approval in an attempt to win the title of ‘the favourite’. The Latency phase (6-12 years) is the period when children begin to develop their own talents, which requires some support. “Excessive envy or jealousy of a sibling may hinder this process,” says Dr Roberts. “It’s common to hear that someone did not take up football, for instance, because their sibling was particularly good at it. Multiple children of the same gender can often make the competition more intense, whereas a boy and a girl as siblings may enjoy a more even time.”

Just as a sibling will project a good quality or value on their brother or sister, they can also project their unwanted feelings, creating a more difficult relationship between them. “Children born close together can, in some cases, feel they have not had enough exclusive time with their mother, or father, and this also can result in the older sibling becoming rivals with the younger one who has, in their eyes, taken the parents ‘away’,” says Dr Roberts. “The psychoanalytic understanding of sibling rivalry is that it arises from the Oedipal conflict – the Oedipus myth illustrated the dangers of not being able to ‘individuate’ and separate from the parent. The child’s love for the parent can become possessive and the Oedipal pressure in a family can be very strong. Single mothers with sons often find this difficult as the boy can assume the role of the ‘man of the house’ and this can be difficult to manage. As the mother is usually the first love object for an infant and, because of the Oedipal pressures, boys in a family will often be very demanding of their mother until they begin to identify with their father.”

Older sibling hero worship by younger siblings is also common, especially in families with large age gaps between the siblings. Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children (www.fundamentallychildren.com), says, “This is essentially a distortion of the healthy role model relationship where younger siblings admire and look up to an older sibling, often copying behaviour. It becomes a complex when it goes too far and affects the younger sibling’s ability to make his or her own judgments, or view the older sibling’s actions objectively. It is often accompanied by an unjustified lack of confidence in his or her own abilities.”

“Another common complex is excessive jealousy,” she adds. “This if often, but not always, initiated by one sibling having success in an area and the other sibling feeling neglected, under-valued or unloved.”  

How it shapes us

Whatever the circumstances, the number of siblings you have shouldn’t impact on future happiness or success – in theory at least. Rose, from LightHouse Arabia says, “Obviously, more siblings means greater financial strain, which, for some families may mean that they cannot afford the education, or even the nutrition they would like to provide their children. However, we know now that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of future success in business than IQ, and we know that relationships are the single most important factor to secure long-term happiness. Neither of these cost money but they do require engaged, conscious and value-based parenting. Teaching your children resilience, resourcefulness and positive regard for others may be a far more valuable education than sending them to the best school in town.”

As for mitigating the fall out, unfortunately there’s no such thing as the perfect age gap. “Children who are born closer together are a lot of work, but their needs are similar,” says Rose. “They may become close friends but may equally be very different, so don’t bank on them being best friends just because they are close in age. Children who are born further apart give parents a bit more time with each and may mitigate some of the sibling effect, but may not be so close due to the age gap. A very large age gap may be the only way to truly mitigate the sibling effect, but then you will effectively be raising only children and that brings it’s own challenges. More than anything the age gap has to work for the family.” 

Nip sibling issues in the bud

Understanding ways to make a positive impact can help keep the peace. Rose says, “It is true that parents will often say they find one child much easier to deal with than another and I would always ask that parents reflect on why that is, beyond simply laying the blame at the child’s feet. Often it is because the ‘difficult’ child triggers something in them, or is very like them. Or it may even be due to unresolved trauma, or unprocessed events in their own lives. By seeing each child as an individual who will have their own personality and needs, and who will trigger different emotions and reactions in you, you maximise the likelihood of mitigating sibling complexes.”

Dr Roberts from The Priory encourages us to stay agile. “The resolution to these jealousies is to come to the realisation that each child is like a planet revolving around the sun (the parent),” she says. “Each child is equal but sometimes closer and sometimes further away metaphorically speaking.”

When it comes to managing sibling rivalry, there are lots of practical tips to try. “Don’t compare your children to one another,” says Dr Bailey. “Let each child develop his or her own individual personality and don’t shoehorn them all into the same activities and interests. Set your kids up to co-operate rather than compete – for instance, set the clock to work together to pick all the toys up rather than who can pick up the most.

“Pay attention to what time of day arguments tend to occur and consider whether a change in routine may assist this,” she adds. “Also be there for each child and set some alone time with each one. Try to get even a few minutes one-to-one with each child per day.”

“Older children may have special privileges, such as a later bedtime, but they may have to do more chores to earn this,” suggests Dr Bailey. “Plan family activities that are fun for everyone. If siblings have positive experiences together, this can act as a buffer when there is conflict to minimise this. Make sure each child has their own time and space, such as for playdates with their friends, without a sibling tagging along and that they have their own toys. Lastly, let children try to solve their own conflicts and only step in when you need to.”

Ultimately, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as the perfect family dynamic. Rose says, “All families argue, disagree and even fight but instilling a solid moral compass for your children, regardless of their age, is a solid strategy for ensuring your family is on the same page most of the time. Basing rules and expectations around values makes it easier to explain the reason why you do and say the things you do and provides children with a framework within which to make their choices. This will include how they treat other family members, their peers and others in the community and hopefully even themselves.”

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