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Birth Order Part II: Your Oldest Child
by Dr. Susan S. Bartell

Have you ever wondered why children in the same family often turn out so different from each other? After all, parents try to provide each with the same love, discipline, education, experiences and challenges. What's more, most children are even genetically similar. Of course human beings are complex and many factors are responsible for the differences between siblings. But as we discussed in Part I of the Birth Order series, a powerful part of the answer comes from the child's position in the family. And even more importantly, I believe, is how the child's parents interact with him or her, depending on this birth order position.

This article will take a look at the oldest child in the family. How does being the first born impact a child and how does his or her personality evolve? As for parenting-despite your best efforts to raise your children equally, it is practically impossible to avoid the effects of birth order. Knowing this, what can a parent do to raise the happiest, most well adjusted oldest child possible? Keep reading and you'll find out.

One and only

Before becoming the oldest, your first born child is an only child (except, of course, for twins). No matter how long this only-child status lasts, it has a significant impact on the child. This is because the majority of parents bond with their first child in a very intense way. They focus all their attention on the child, dote on him or her and watch the achievement of every milestone with great anticipation and satisfaction. Then suddenly, there is a new baby in the house. Of course you're thrilled and maybe your older child is too. But, for your child this also represents the first real loss in his or her life. It is the loss of mom and dad's (and maybe grandparents) undivided devotion. For some children the adjustment is easy and for others it is more difficult. But for all children, this change is dramatically life-altering and therefore, personality shaping.

Some first-born children are relived, because prior to the new baby their parents may have been unknowingly smothering and anxious-after all this was their first child. These older children now have the chance to spread their wings and become a bit more independent and less watched by the grown-ups. But for other children the adjustment makes them clingy and worried about separation from mom or dad. It is important for parents to realize that the clinging or difficulty with separation, has to do with a fear of losing mom and dad to the baby. The symptoms may surface immediately, or not for many months (and in a few cases, years.) If parents respond reassuringly, allowing the child a period of extra closeness and attention, he or she will eventually be fine. But if a parent continues to push an oldest child towards independence and separation, he or she could develop a more significant and lasting difficulty with separation. Some first-borns develop this even if their parents are very sensitive to their emotional needs. This is due simply to the unavoidable loss of their parents' undivided love and attention. Of course, this is not to say that you should not have more children. All children can be helped to cope with the change and separation, given time and patience. We just can't always predict how long this might take. But, if your child doesn't seem to outgrow separation difficulties by five or six years (e.g. trouble going to sleep, unable to visit friends without you, frequent visits to the school nurse, excessive crying when you go out at night) you should consider speaking with a counselor/therapist who specializes in childhood issues.

Achievement and frustration

Many hopes and dreams are placed on the shoulders of a first born child whether he or she knows it or not, and whether parents realize what they are doing. The strong desire of parents to have their child succeed is felt full-force by the oldest child, but only in a diluted way by additional children. Since children internalize all messages conveyed by their parents (even if you don't realize you're communicating a message), many oldest children, in an attempt to live up to their parents expectations, become conscientious, high-achieving children who excel in school and sports. They then become high-powered, high-achieving adults who are not satisfied unless they are at the top. Of course these can be wonderful personality traits, enabling a child to be productive and proud. But at times, a parent might put too much pressure on a child to succeed, which can be very difficult for the child, causing stress in their relationship.

Even when parents don't have high expectations, some first-borns put pressure on themselves because they feel they owe it to their parents. But when, inevitably, they aren't "the best" at something, they may put themselves down ("I'm dumb", "I'll never get it right") or blame someone else for their failure ("It's the coaches fault", "The test was too hard"). To help your child strive for success without feeling like a failure along the way, parents need to be aware that their expectations can adversely affect their oldest child. Also, if a child shows signs of consistent frustration, anxiety or rage in the face of failure, parents need to help this child recognizes that failure, as well as not always being the very best, is a necessary and acceptable part of life.

The Boss

Many first-borns are labeled by siblings, friends and parents, as bossy, or "trying to be a parent". Indeed, children may even assume this role because their parents unknowingly empower them. When a parent asks an older sibling to "watch the baby for a few minutes," "show your little brother how to brush his teeth" or "tell your sister and brother to stop fighting", the message heard by the child is that the parent wants him or her to assume a parenting role. Children are not necessarily able to recognize the boundaries on this role. They may become "over-parentified" (acting too much like mom or dad)-worrying about younger siblings to an extreme or trying to care for them even when an adult is present.

If you have a slightly bossy oldest child, you can teach him or her that "its great to help out, but that doesn't make you a parent". Parents can also help oldest children develop skills of cooperation and compromise by teaching it gently while their child is still young. By encouraging group activities and by stressing the importance of siblings helping each other (rather than only the oldest helping the youngest) your oldest child will be less likely to develop a troubling need for superiority over others.

Some oldest children also slip into this role with peers. They may try to boss their friends around or brag about being the smartest or the best. To avoid this becoming a big problem, which could result in a child having trouble with friends, parents can tactfully (without punishment) help a child recognize that other kids don't like it when someone is too bossy or controlling.

As an adult, being a bit "bossy" or " controlling might very well be useful in the working world. So first-borns will often make excellent supervisors, directors and real bosses. On the other hand, this same personality trait may be a hindrance on the way up, because these oldest siblings, who aren't used to being the youngest or least experienced in the group, don't like to be told what to do by those in charge. Grown up oldest children may work well independently, but not perhaps not be great team players. If they can't be the leaders of the team, they may lock horns with superiors. Of course, if you help your oldest child to become a good team player when they are still young, this is less likely to be a significant concern.

Your first and oldest child is a wonderful blessing and always holds an incredibly special place in your heart. He or she is also, in some ways, your first experiment in parenting. You may make mistakes along the way. But as long as you keep learning and correct your mistakes, your child will be fine. Children are extremely resilient and as long as we make our children a priority in our lives and parent them with all our love, they will forgive our mistakes.

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by Dr. Susan S. Bartell

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