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How does birth order affect a child’s personality traits? Can the character of an older child change with the advent of a brother or sister? And what difficulties do only children face? The answers to these questions are given further in this article.


Birth order defines behavioral patterns of children depending on the presence or absence of siblings and the order in which they were born.

Alfred Adler became the first to be interested in this issue. He studied a large number of children and noticed that children with the same status in the family have much in common in their personality´s structure.

Freud’s follower distinguished following ‘ordinal positions’:

  • Only child
  • Eldest child
  • Middle one
  • Youngest one between two siblings
  • Youngest one between 3 or more siblings


According to Adler, position of the eldest child is unique while he is an only child, as he is considered to be the ‘center of the universe’ in his family. Receiving endless love and caring from his parents, he enjoys a safe and serene existence.

The arrival of a second child drastically changes this situation, shocking and surprising the firstborn. Psychologists call this moment ‘dethronement’. Moreover, if the age gap between children is less than 6 years, stress impact increases severely. All of the feelings of a child in this period come down to the idea that his place in parents’ hearts and thoughts is taken by someone else, and he lost his unlimited power over them.

If we are talking about personal qualities, researchers state that oldest children usually:

  • are responsible (moreover, sense of responsibility can be exaggerated, which leads to excessive anxiety);
  • prone to follow the rules;
  • and they study better (their IQ tests are almost always higher than the average, which is determined not only by higher intelligence, but also ambitions, striving to be first, and a strong motivation to succeed).

Due to being inexperienced, parents tend to experiment with different parenting styles on the first child, which often contradict each other, leading to emotional instability of the child.

Furthermore, eldest children are usually prone to perfectionism, roots of which lie in perception of their loss of parental love. They unconsciously have thoughts like: “I will become better so my parents can love me again”. Thus, there is a formation of the term “earning love”, which influences future relationships.

According to statistics, 80% of leaders in the world are older children. The Ohio State University researchers also found that older kids are more likely to become leaders of political parties and movements than middle or younger ones.


Case of ‘universal worship’ is unknown to second child. Since first days, he experiences the world where love, attention and care is divided between him and his older sibling.

According to Adler, the oldest sibling sets the pace for his younger one. Additionally, youngest ones are prone to be ambitious, since they establish a goal not only to catch up, but also to surpass older siblings.

In many cases, parents tend to assign less responsibilities to second children. Additionally, they are inclined to achieve anything they want using tricks and manipulations.

Usually, youngest children tend to be complete opposites of older ones, since it is hard for them to catch up with firstborns, who already have successes in academic education. That is why they strive to thrive in other fields (for example, sports or art).

Youngest out of two often tend to be more self-oriented, rather than orientation on others, and they do not seek for meeting the expectations of others. They are more sociable, easygoing, and emotionally stable.


Second, but not last children, are simultaneously older and younger siblings, therefore they may display traits of both ones.

The main issue in nurturing a middle child is that mainly parents give their attention to oldest (because he first goes to school, etc.) and youngest (as the most helpless). The middle child (if he is not an only boy or a girl in triad) can feel that he is an ‘empty place’, and depending on basic traits – he either suffers, or attracts attention with rebellious behavior or bad habits.

Since birth, middle child sees an example in older sibling and looks up to him. Therefore, he can develop faster: start walking or talking earlier. However, it also stimulates competition, so the second child grows up ambitious and striving to break the records of others. Adler thought that middle children can set unrealistic goals which practically leads to possibility of failures.

Unlike firstborns that fully immerse themselves in their inner worries, middle children often are oriented towards society and are open to the world. Researchers state that they can smoothly negotiate with others, since they often play the role of mediator in the family, binding siblings. Middle children try to live with everyone in harmony. They are tactful and friendly towards others.


Key moment in understanding the identity of youngest child is that they enter already an established system, where their parents already have a great experience in raising children and they do not worry about every minor problem in nurturing. Consequently, third children often grow up to be more calm and cheerful. Even out of two children, youngest ones are usually more smiling and emotionally stable.

According to Adler, position of the last child is unique due to the fact that he never feels a shock of ‘dethronement’. Being a ‘favorite one’ in the family, they are often surrounded with love and care from both parents and older siblings.

Youngest ones grow up in an environment where older children possess a privilege and determine ‘rules of the game’. On this basis, youngest siblings may obtain a feeling of inferiority and therefore have a great motivation in surpassing oldest ones. That is why Adler considered youngest children as a possible future revolutionists.

Life of the youngest ones is concentrated on people and relationships with people, they know how to please people and know all the subtleties of communication.


Adler stated that the position of the only child is special because he does not need to compete with siblings. Likewise, a firstborn single children get a lot of attention from parents. But there is a difference because attention does not transfer to the youngest children. Therefore, being under guardianship for too long, these children tend to expect same protection and care from others outside of the family.

This is an “explosive mixture” of older and younger siblings. On one hand, they are more sensitive to rules and expectations of their parents, trying to meet them. They measure themselves according to adult standards (because there are no other children and they are focused mainly on adult model of behavior), which makes them grow up quickly. Usually, only children are more skillful in dealing with adults, they are able to quickly find a common language with grownups, much faster than with their peers.

It is also believed that these children have highly developed intelligence. Only children often succeed, since they have leadership qualities, and are quite ambitious. They have a high achievement motivation, and they strive to avoid failures by all means.

In conclusion, the order of birth has a non-defining role, but rather it has an important role in shaping children´s personality. We can see that each child is born in certain conditions that affects his emotions, behavior and character traits.

Iryna Falkivska


Bernard H. Shulman, Harold H. Mosak, Birth order and ordinal position: two Adlerian views, Journal of Individual Psychology, 1977.

Cecile Ernst, Jules Angst, Birth Order: Its influence on Personality, 2012.

Kevin Leman, The Birth Order Book: Why you are the way you are, 2009.


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