Life Lines on Birth Order…from Alfred Adler

Do you believe your birth order in the family affects your life?

Many people feel they have been affected by their birth order. For example, older siblings often feel a burdensome sense of responsibility for the younger brothers/sisters, while the youngest ones are prone to feeling powerless and inadequate, perhaps believing they have to outdo their siblings competitively to get noticed. Some scientists believe that oldest children are born to rule the world, while others believe that the youngest ones are the real stars. 

Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler was the first professional to place emphasis on ‘birth order’ in the family and the effect it is perceived to have on children. He argued that youngest children, for example, being later in the order, and perhaps smaller in size, tend to feel less powerful than everyone else.

Often they develop an ‘inferiority complex’ which drives them to “outstrip every other member of the family and become its most capable member”. However, while an inferiority complex might make someone “timid and withdrawn”, it can also have the effect of propelling them to achieve above everyone else in order to compensate because, as he pointed out, “a thousand talents and capabilities arise from our feelings of inadequacy”.

He argues that, depending on their development, sense of self and the quality of their experience in the family, children will either imitate the adults to become more assertive, feeling powerful themselves, or will consciously display weakness and fragility to attract help and attention from those around them.

Further research on birth order has shown that first born children are more likely to go to college than children in any other position in the family and are often the most bossy. The middle child often seems to have the most negative impressions of his/her lot in life. They are the youngest one to the older sibling and the oldest one to the younger sibling – being both a big brother/sister and a little brother/sister which can cause some feelings of insecurity and invisibility. Younger children always want to copy what older siblings are allowed to do and older siblings often feel that the younger siblings get away with things they were not able to when they were the same age. 

However, despite these general patterns, parents should try to help each child to see themselves as unique individuals and avoid comparisons with siblings or anyone else to reinforce their identities and encourage their individuality.

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