Sunday, July 21, 2024

Is Adler’s birth order theory still up-to-date?

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The well known Viennese psychiatrist and psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937), founder of the Individual psychology, was one of the first theorists who suggested that birth order influences personality.

He divided siblings in 4 categories:

1. Only children, who may have characteristics of either the first born or the youngest child. He believed that (because only children have no rivals for their parents’ affection) they may be spoiled particularly by their mother. In his opinion, this could cause later interpersonal difficulties if the only child is not universally liked and admired. They have no problem being loners. Introverted only children may show extroverted qualities, if they wish to make friends, and naturally extroverted children may learn to show introverted qualities when playmates are unavailable.

2. Firstborn children, according to Adler, are serious, conscientious, goal-oriented, aggressive, rule-conscious, exacting, conservative, organized, responsible, directive, jealous, fearful, high achieving, competitive, high in self-esteem, and anxious. They learn the concept of power at a young age, this is why they desire to help, protect and lead others. The first born may come to feel unloved, being “dethroned” by the younger siblings. He might become authoritarian or strict. First time parents are usually highly anxious and vigilant. They document every milestone, celebrate each small achievement, and worry if it comes later than expected. They put the firstborn child under a lot of pressure to succeed. The firstborn child is often shocked by the introduction of a competitor into the family. This could lead to sibling rivalry. Younger siblings often idolize the first born, putting the first born in a position of leader of the children of the family.

For a long time, it was assumed that the firstborn are more intelligent than the others. A study, conducted in Norway in 2007 by Petter Kristensen and Tor Bjerkedal, showed that the social rank in the family and not birth order as such has a high impact on the children’s IQ. Thus, the most “important” child is the most intelligent (IQ 103,2) as the second one (IQ 101,2) or the third one (IQ 100). Furthermore, conscripts with loss of siblings are disadvantaged compared with conscripts with no such loss regarding several factors associated with intelligence.

3. Middleborn children have a diverse range of personalities. The habits of many middleborns are motivated by the fact that they have never been truly in the spotlight. The middleborn children often have the sense of not belonging. They fight to receive attention from parents and others because they feel many times they are being ignored or dubbed off as being the same as another sibling. They might have fewer pictures in the family photo album alone, compared to firstborns. Being in the middle, a child can feel insecure and this can affect their relationships throughout their whole life. In some cases the middle child will see life from a hopeless standpoint, will often become depressed or even lonely. The middle child often lacks drive and looks for direction from the first born child. A middle child feels out of place because he is not an over achievers and likes to go with the flow of things. They are natural mediators and avoid conflict. They are also highly loyal to the peer group and have many friends. The middle born child develops good social skills and has an easier time growing up with an other-centered point of view. It has been suggested that middleborn children are more likely to be entrepreneurs.

4. The youngest child of the family is viewed as the entertainer who is unafraid to test his or her luck, as the baby of the family and an outgoing charmer. While this is certainly not true of all youngest siblings, proponents of this theory state that the youngest of the family is an endearing, and delightful friend. The youngest child is often babied more than the other siblings. This “pampering,”  is one of the worst behaviors a parent can bestow on a child and it can lead to dependence, and selfishness as well as irresponsibility when the youngest enters adulthood. Youngest children may become manipulative and control-seeking if their sibling(s), parents, or other peers are overbearing or bossy.

The results of a study, conducted in the United States by Daniel I. Reesa, Elizabeth Lopezb, Susan L. Averettc, Laura M. Argys suggest that having an older sibling is associated with an increased probability that males played baseball and football, were members of the school swim team, and participated in cheerleading. Female 10th graders with older siblings were less likely to engage in a variety of extracurricular activities including school band, community service, and yearbook.

Adler mentioned also Special types of siblings: only boy below girls, only girl below boys (outsider, but, at the same time, a challenge).

Twins tend to have one dominate twin, who acts as the first born. Because of twins’ closeness, they tend to be a lot more confident; but they often have trouble being alone and get lonely easily. When one twin gets married, this often causes separation problems with both twins, and sometimes leads to depression. Twins, especially identical twins, tend to be much closer than normal siblings.

Women with a twin brother marry more seldom than women with a twin sister, and they are also having less children. These are the results from a Finnish study, conducted in 2006 by Virpi Lummaa , Jenni E. Pettay, and Andrew F. Russell.

Everything changes, the education too. Even if hundreds of years ago, the parents used “to place everything” on the first born and to neglect the following siblings, today everything seems to have changed. Every child is different, every child is special. Most parents are aware of that now. Each child is individually addressed, the challenge is to keep up with the parents’ expectations  and not doubt him-/herself.

In Germany for example, there are a lot of children books explaining how to deal with the siblings “situation”:„Lilli wird Baby-Expertin“ – (Lilli becomes baby-expert), „Bleib bloß da drin!“ (Remain inside!) and „Kleiner Bruder zu verkaufen!“(Little brother for sale).  Lilli’s mother is a wise one, she explains to her daughter that love can not be divided in two or three between the siblings, but love duplicates if another sibling comes into the world.

Jürg Frick, a Swiss psychologist, gives lectures for 15 years now about the siblings situation. The most important exercise is to divide the attendees in groups, only children, first children, middleborn and youngest children. The results are always the same: each participant experienced the past in a different way, independent of the initial position. This fact gives the parents the “tool” to be more relaxed with their children. They maybe realize that many things are beyond their influence and that they should be less severe on themselves.

He also states: Sometimes is no capital sin to like a child a little bit more than the other. If one is now in his the terrible twos and the other thinks “Mother is the best”, is normal and human to prefer the angel. Thus, this should not become a norm.

Parents should educate the children according to their needs, they should try to act equitable and not equal. They also should keep their own good health in mind. If not so, all books and siblings courses will be in vain.


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  • C.R.

    Hi. Great topic!!!
    I hope that loads of parents take the time to read and understand thoroughly the consequences of an inadequate parental behavior.

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