Siblings don’t come only in twos. Three seems always to be the more difficult number, and we have so many ideas about that middle one. The popular image seems to be of an unlucky middle child always getting lost between the oldest and the youngest. Sometimes the middle one is that lucky boy between two girls – or the other way around, lucky girl between two boys. But there is something to the idea of a middle child struggling to find his or her own identity.
We tend to forget that before the middle one was a “middle” she was the younger one of two. For a time she got the attention that goes with being the baby. But then when a new baby came, she did not move into the honored position of being the first born – that slot was already taken. Even as the second, the attention and investment is never the same as with the first. So absent the easy designation of oldest or youngest, it is a challenge for the middle one to find a way to stand out.
Mothers describe patterns of behavior that have come to seem almost classic. One picture is that of the middle child trying to emulate his older brother – often without success. Mothers say, “He wants to do everything his brother does and is constantly frustrated.” But his interest in his brother may be experienced as annoying, leaving the middle one feeling rejected. His hurt feelings may then be expressed in angry behavior toward the younger sibling.
Another familiar picture is that of a child trying to boss her younger sibling in the same way as she feels bossed by her older sister. There are variations depending on the differences of age between the children, but often middle children feel as though they are in a no-win situation, literally caught in the middle. It is a challenge for parents – no les less than for the children themselves – to establish a separate identity for the middle child.
Perhaps a deeper issue than the birth position of a child in the family is the feelings evoked in their parents by different children. Parents are fond of saying that they love their children equally. They say this to their children when accused of favoring one child over another in some way. But the issue is not love, it is rather the emotional reactions that are triggered in us by one child as compared to another. We talk about children pressing our buttons. Different children press different buttons.
It often seems as if there is an anger button, a worry button and an empathy button. One child always seems to get our goat in the way she acts, or what she says in response to something. Another child has us worried because he seems so different from everyone else in the family – he is more within himself while we are all outgoing. And still another child is just the opposite. She seems so familiar we have no trouble relating to her at all.
Sometimes the reason for our reactions seems clear: “She torments me exactly the way my sister used to when we were growing up.” “My brother was like that and he ended up a real loner, not very happy.” “She is just like I was at that age and I understand her perfectly.” Here we are at least somewhat aware that we are identifying a child with someone else of significance in our lives.
But at other times the reasons for our reactions are more elusive and seem harder to get a handle on. When that happens, the child in question can begin to seem like more of a problem. When we are not aware of what we are bringing to the situation we start to attribute more to the child. This is not to say that a child’s behavior may not be an issue. But rather we become handicapped in our own responses if we are reacting to someone or something else in our lives, past or present, rather than to this child at this moment.
It is truly a challenge to see and relate to each child as an individual in his or her own right, whatever the position in the family. Mothers sometimes tell me they have trouble with a child’s personality or behavior because it is so unlike her other children. She has a different picture in her mind of how children react, or are supposed to react in certain situations.
But differences in themselves don’t mean bad, good or something wrong. We have to remind ourselves to look at behavior in terms of what we can understand about each child’s own personality and feelings, not in terms of someone else. In particular, we have to be mindful that our children are not extensions of ourselves. They have a right to be who they are. Our job is to get to know who each of them is.