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So Now You Have a Middle Child
by Dr. Susan Bartell

Congratulations, you've taken the big leap and you're having a third child. By now you probably feel like an expert at preparing your kids for the new baby (and if not, just check out the rest of the website), but have you thought about what it's going to be like for your baby to suddenly become a middle child? If you're like most people you probably haven't given much thought to "middle child" issues until they're staring you in the face. And by then it's sometimes difficult to manage them. This article will provide you with some insights and tips on how to make the transition as smooth as possible for your child. If you already have a middle child, you will undoubtedly recognize some of the issues, and I bet you'll even learn some ways to make your middle child feel less sandwiched in.

My younger child will adjust easily to the new baby. After all she's never known what it's like to be an only child.

Nancy and Jeff didn't really prepare three-year old Courtney for becoming a big sister. After all she had never known what it was like to be an only child. She'd always had to share attention with her older brother, Kyle and they didn't think things would be that different for her after the baby was born. Were they mistaken! Courtney developed many of the behaviors that are commonly seen when an only child becomes an older sibling. She started having toileting accidents, tantrums and difficulty sleeping. She was angry all the time and even expressed a wish that the baby would go away. As you might imagine, Nancy and Jeff were shocked and very upset. They felt terrible that they had underestimated Courtney's ability to adjust.

Nancy and Jeff are a lot like most parents who don't realize that being a younger sibling doesn't automatically make it easier to become an older one. In fact, this is probably the most common reaction parents have when they think about preparing their two (or more) children for the baby. After all, the children are used to sharing their parents and toys and they've had plenty of practice being patient and not getting their needs met right away. So how hard could it be for the youngest to have another sibling? Actually, being an only child isn't the only criterion for an easy or difficult adjustment. Parents who understand this are much more likely to be able to successfully help their child adjust to being a middle child.

  • Make sure that you thoroughly prepare each child for becoming an older brother or sister, no matter what his or her placement in the family, or how many times you've done it before.
  • Remember becoming a middle child is not the same as becoming a sibling for the first time.

During the last six months, since the baby was born, my middle son seems to whine and cry practically all the time. It's driving me crazy.

Justin, who is four years old, asks his mother, Sharon for a Band-Aid at least ten times a day, for very minor or fictitious injuries. Sharon says that she goes through a box of bandages every week just to appease Justin because if she refuses to give him one he immediately starts to whine, quickly escalating into a full-blown tantrum. Justin also often complains of tummy-aches even when he is fine. Sharon is puzzled because until Justin's younger brother, Greg, was born Justin would rough and tumble all day long with his older sister Leslie, and children in school. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. Now he cries if you look at him the wrong way.

At four years old, Justin is sandwiched between Leslie who is six and Greg who is eighteen months. Like Justin, many middle children often feel really "stuck" between an older sibling who does everything first, better and faster, and a baby who is tiny, cute and new. It seems to them that the only way to get attention is to be upset, sick or hurt. After all, parents always pay attention to children who are sad or in pain. Justin figured out that if he cries, complains and asks for bandages a lot, his parents would realize that he is unhappy and give him the attention he needs. And this certainly works sometimes. Unfortunately, what middle children can't realize is that this behavior can become very annoying to their parents, who then become impatient and unwilling to cater to it. As you can imagine, when this happens, it just serves to reinforce the child's fears that his parents don't have the time for him that they do for his older and younger siblings. Then a wild cycle begins with the child becoming more whiny and annoying and his parents becoming more impatient. So how do you prevent this from happening?

  • Recognize that changes in your child's behavior are likely due to his struggle to adjust to becoming a middle child.
  • Try and give your middle child some time alone with one or both parents to help him feel he still deserves special attention.
  • Focus on positive behaviors that your child displays so he knows you still appreciate him.
  • Enroll your middle child in at least one activity (soccer, karate, ballet etc.) without his siblings and really focus your attention on him during the activity. Also provide lots of positive reinforcement after he's finished his class ("great job", "I love how you kicked that ball", "you really paid attention" etc.)
  • Don't always allow an older sibling to be "first" or a baby to usurp all your attention. Sometimes being in the middle should have some benefits (e.g. choosing where he wants to sit in the car, picking a TV show and staying up later.)

My 3-year old daughter is usually so independent she never lets me help her with anything. Then all of a sudden she will refuse to do anything herself and will have a complete meltdown unless I do it for her.

Megan is exhausting her parents; every single thing is a battle with her. She won't wear what Susan picks out, she refuses to put on a coat when it's freezing, she wants to wash her own hair and brush her own teeth. Then all of a sudden she'll ask Susan or Joe to put on her shoes for her. If they don't do it she will become furious and begin to cry hysterically. What's going on with her? She seems like she has two personalities and Susan and Joe are at their wit's end with her.

Most middle children struggle to figure out their identity. They are not sure if they want to be independent like their older sibling or helpless and dependent like the baby. So they try out both roles and often flip back and forth between them. To parents this is confusing and frustrating because they are never sure which personality they will get at any given time. In fact it often seems like your child is deliberately trying to frustrate you. Megan, for example, especially loves to be independent when she knows that her mom is in a hurry. She will insist upon tying her own shoes (which she can't do!) when they are already running late for school. On the other hand, when Susan could really use some help from her, Megan seems to be incapable of doing anything for herself. She is struggling to figure out how she can best get her needs met, by being a baby or by being a "big kid." If she's too independent her parents may forget about her but if she's too babyish she will have to give up all the new skills she's learned and of which she is so proud. The battle will continue until your middle child can find a role that feels comfortable. You can help facilitate this by trying the following things:

  • Try not to get aggravated by the constant changes. Your patience will be rewarded because it will give your child the space she needs to experiment and find a comfortable role in the family.
  • Ask you child frequently if she wants help with a particular task. If you give her the control, she will be less likely to become angry with you.
  • Try and "go with the flow." Admittedly this is difficult, but if you can give your child what she needs at a particular time, you will be far less likely to end up arguing with her every time you make a request of her or she of you. So if she asks you to tie her shoes, just do it rather than insisting she can and should do it herself. On the other hand, if she wants to dress herself (in mismatched clothes) don't worry about it too much.
  • Encourage individuality and remind your middle child often that she is unique and special.

It is not always easy for children to figure out who they want to be and how they want to express themselves. This is particularly true when they are stuck in between two other children. There are many different ways that a middle child might feel and react and the ones discussed here certainly don't cover all the possibilities. Remember that every child is unique and should be encouraged to express him or herself as such. Your role as a parent, is to encourage your child's uniqueness, bolster her confidence and, by your words and actions, leave her no doubt that what ever her place in the birth order, you consider her a valuable and important member of the family.

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by Anne Smith, BA, IBCLC

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