Birth Order Click here to see the table of contents

Birth Order Dynamics and Response to Stress 


Attributing personality characteristics and developmental patterns to individuals based on ordinal position of birth within the family has been a popular, but controversial practise. The treatise that a niche that children find for themselves within the family constellation governs habitual responses to stressful stimuli is reviewed. Potential problems with some birth order effects research are also discussed. Archetypal birth order profiles are examined, and possible contributing factors to differences between siblings are suggested. These include how the birth of a sibling affects older children in the family, and the roles of parental feedback, expectations and favouritism. Extreme influences on childhood development, such as substance abuse in the family of origin, growing up with a sibling with a disability, and the effects of blended families are examined. A stronger theoretical base and cross-cultural studies are recommended to remedy the contradictory findings that have dominated a great deal of the birth order effect literature.

The behaviour modification perspective

"I was the oldest child, and David was the youngest, and between us there were years of dependence and resentment and ruthlessness and love..."

M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me, in Buckley (1998)

Family roles govern the perceived expectations and responsibilities placed on children by parents and siblings. Children's perception of their place in the family constellation influences how they feel about themselves, and how they interact with others (Kottman & Johnson, 1993 in Nims, 1998). Components of family structure during formative years that reflect emotional and affiliative ties are implicated in the psychological status, coping and relating styles of mature individuals (Fullerton, Ursano, Wetzler & Slusarcick, 1989).

Although many genetic and environmental factors contribute to differences between siblings, some differences in behaviour of siblings have been attributed to the effects of birth order (Claxton, 1994), an individual's rank by age among siblings (Steelman, 1985 in Claxton, 1994). The place of the individual within the family, the first social structure encountered, has been suggested as a contributing factor in shaping human personalities (Gould, 1997), and influencing interactions in subsequent social structures.

Although the view that birth order is the sole predictor of development across the lifespan has never been widely accepted, an individual's birth order is a possible influence on relationships with parents and siblings, which may affect personality formation and social behaviour across the lifespan (Buckley, 1998). Socialisation differences experienced by individuals due to their ordinal position of birth may result in overt personality and behaviour differences. In the absence of siblings, first borns tend to be socialised by adults, whereas later borns are exposed to the socialising influences of older siblings (Claxton, 1994). Adults socialised as first borns, are sometimes theorised to be more achievement oriented, while their younger siblings are often believed to be more successful in social endeavours, experience greater enjoyment during risk taking behaviour and be more independent of authority (Claxton, 1994). It is acknowledged that such characterisations are general and imprecise at best (Claxton, 1994).

Birth order research has always been controversial. One of the first modern psychologists to address the influence of birth order on personality development across the lifespan was Alfred Adler in the 1920's. Since his description of the effects of ordinal position of birth on personality (Claxton, 1994), many theories have been suggested to explain apparent differences. These include dethronement of the first born, parental anxiety, economic factors, intrauterine conditions (Claxton, 1994) and historical cohort effects. Much of the debate of possible effects of birth order has focussed on intellectual abilities, academic achievement (Bohmer & Sitton, 1993; Morjoribanks, 1997), economic resources (Travis & Kohli, 1995) and family intellectual environment (Travis & Kohli, 1995).

The transient enthusiasm with which birth order research is investigated is partly caused by the accompanying revival of the nature versus nurture in the formation of human personality debate, and partly by inconsistent and conflicting findings in this area (Claxton, 1994).


Ability to negotiate and cope with stressors, the stimuli or experiences that increase risk of personal, social or cognitive difficulties (Carson, Swanson, Cooney & Gillum, 1992), has been associated with children's development, emotional adjustment and physical wellbeing. There are great individual differences in children's vulnerability or resilience when confronted with stress. Age, health status, temperament, heredity, cognitive appraisal of stressors and locus of control are some of the factors implicated in this variation (Carson et al., 1992). Adaptation to distinct stressors is a unique trajectory for each individual. Resiliency could also be viewed as a dynamic process (Carson et al., 1992) since it may be situation specific to an extent (Carson et al., 1992). Inability to handle stress effectively in childhood has been associated with adjustment problems, anxiety disorders, antisocial behaviour, hyper- vigilance and psychosomatic illness (Carson et al., 1992). Protective factors against stress include personality factors such as flexibility and sociability (Carson et al., 1992).

Relationships with others outside the family, including peers, teachers and community involvement, can also act as buffers and assist a child in dealing with stressors (Carson et al., 1992). Yet it is the bond between siblings, and parents and children, that have been implicated as key determinants of resiliency to stress in childhood (Carson et al., 1992). Compatibility between the individual's characteristics and those of the family, and parental expectations have also been associated with individual coping styles (Carson et al., 1992). Greater compatibility may result in greater resiliency when confronted with stressful situations (Anthony, 1987 in Carson et al., 1992).

Although successful coping is reliant on many individual and environmental factors (Turkel & Eth, 1990, in Carson et al., 1992), personal characteristics, such as locus of control and competency are associated with greater resiliency and more adaptive coping styles (Carson et al., 1992). These individual determinants of coping style may override family factors with either a positive or negative outcome (Carson et al., 1992). They may also be determined in part by family interactions. It has been suggested that the first born personality exhibits greater resiliency (Carson et al., 1992). It could be suggested that the archetypal experiences of first born individuals may foster greater locus of control, providing the individuals with greater confidence in their ability to negotiate stressful stimuli. Causative inferences concerning these factors must be undertaken cautiously, if at all, since a variety of influences shape individual response to stress (Carson et al., 1992), most of which are difficult to control in empirical investigations.

Walter Toman analysed different patterns of sibling order and gender and how characteristics formed by these combinations may affect relating styles in marriage and parenting (Buckley, 1998). The external validity of his theories has been questioned, especially the meticulous descriptions of numerous combinations, however the basic tenets of the processes involved in formation of different styles of relating are still being investigated. Stressors encountered in relationships in adult life may replicate those experienced in the first, and most significant relationships of childhood - those between family members. Some adult relationships closely mirror the dynamics of those from childhood. The more closely facets of an adult interpersonal relationship mirrors sibling, or parent and child relationship dynamics, the greater the chance that the individual will apply the coping skills learnt in the childhood scenario (Buckley, 1998).

Animal studies

The blood levels of cortisol, a hormone secreted in greater quantities when the organism is stressed, has been used as an indicator of response to stress inducing stimuli. When placed in a fear-inducing situation, such as confrontation with an unfamiliar human, first born infant rhesus monkeys' blood levels of cortisol, were found to be twice as high as in their later born siblings. Inconsistent and inept maternal behaviour has been cautiously implicated in this reaction. Maternal blood cortisol levels in the stressed simians were also higher in first time mothers than mothers who had given birth to several offspring (Black, 1998).

Intra-uterine conditions have also been suggested as contributors. In rats, infants who were closer to the placenta than their litter mates during gestation were found to have higher blood cortisol levels and more fearful temperaments throughout their lives (Black, 1998). Caution against prematurely extrapolating this information to humans on the basis of the current findings has been expressed (Black, 1998).

Birth of a sibling

The birth of a sibling results in significant changes in the family environment. Positive interactions with an older child may diminish, especially if the birth interval is short and the mother adopts a more controlling parenting style (Baydar, 1997). Regression, anxiety and aggression have been commonly observed in the older child (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991).

Neuropsychoimmunological studies have attempted to correlate the birth of a younger brother, described as a particularly traumatic experience for first born children, aged two to three years, with the status of the older child's immune system function. Decrease in effectiveness of immune function such as expression of T3 and T4 lymphocytes and phagocytosis, beginning in the period preceding the birth of the younger sibling was documented (Rosaschino et al., 1991-92 ). Although this was a preliminary investigation with a very small sample size, these findings may demonstrate a potential physiological repercussion (Lederman, 1996) of the anxiety a first born may experience when faced with the prospect of dethronement.

Sibling rivalry has been well documented and is integral to the possible effects of birth order on personality development. If findings such as these are replicated, it may prompt greater emphasis on promotion of positive parenting styles which have been shown to attenuate a great deal of the potentially detrimental effects of sibling rivalry (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991).

Birth order archetypes

Although differences between siblings are determined by factors other than birth order, including external influences and inherent personality differences (Crispell, 1996), there has been great enthusiasm for ascribing certain archetypal characteristic to individuals based on associations with ordinal position of birth. Each archetypical profile, from oldest to youngest, has been assigned certain characteristics that seem consistent with that place in the family system. Oldest children are seen as more ambitious, given more responsibility and often feel more pressure to succeed (Richardson & Richardson, 1990), yet the experience of dethronement is thought to make firstborns vulnerable to the effects of stress and uncertain in difficult situations (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Middle children are often thought to struggle with finding their place in the family and gaining recognition (Richardson & Richardson, 1990). Youngest children are believed to be accustomed to receiving attention and thought to misbehave if they feel a lack of attention (Nims, 1998).

Although these are popularly accepted stereotypes, they are not always borne out in psychological research (Ernst & Angst, 1983). If there is any significant relationship between these characteristics and ordinal position of birth, it is thought that it is easily moderated by many factors that are unique to the individual, the environment or a combination of both (Ernst & Angst, 1983).

Problems with birth order research

In their comprehensive review of more than 1000 studies that either focussed on birth order, or incorporated it into a research design between 1946 and 1980, Ernst and Angst (1983) investigated whether a child's birth rank has any decisive or systematic influence on the individual's future. Faced with contradictory findings in many areas of personality and development, they concluded that the lack of a theoretical basis in birth order research was problematic, and suggested a moratorium on birth order research until this had been rectified (Ernst & Angst, 1983).

Attempts to control potential confounders such as different economic statuses at different times in parents' lives (Travis & Kohli, 1995) have been implemented. However a more difficult variable to control for are the ages at which birth order changes (Zajonc, Markus & Markus, 1979). There are advantages and disadvantages ascribed to every birth order position which vary in effects at different stages of an individual's development. Changes in family constellation at different ages have potential outcomes that vary greatly (Zajonc et al., 1979).

There have been criticisms of the retrospective and hypothetical nature of many birth order effect investigations. Studies of families in situations of real emotional significance to them may be a useful adjunct (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982).

Birth order effects may diminish over time and disappear by adulthood (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Longitudinal investigation may be necessary to determine the lifetime significance of any potential personality and developmental effects influenced by birth order position.

Some researchers frustrated with the conflicting information obtained from birth order studies have turned to analysing family size, a variable deemed more stable, with greater possibility of replication (Zajonc et al., 1979). It also controls for some differences in economic environment. Children in small families are more likely to be raised in similar periods of parents' life cycle (Travis & Kohli, 1995).

Some researchers have abandoned birth order as an independent explanatory variable and delegated it to the status of an important marker variable (Elliott, 1992). In isolation it is not seen as exerting a powerful influence, however when combined with other factors affecting the family, some differences may emerge (Elliott, 1992).

Abandoning ordinal birth order analysis for investigation of psychological birth order is another approach gaining acceptance, since it has been found to be a stronger predictor of lifestyle factors in accordance with Adlerian theory (White, Campbell & Stewart, 1995).

Psychological birth order

Birth order personalities are thought to be formed early in life. As siblings mature, each one selects a niche in the family constellation. As each progressive sibling chooses a niche, the younger children select different ones. This niche selection process has been used to explain the differences in traits and personality characteristics that siblings display (Buckley, 1998). Children have to solve particular obstacles presented to them by the position in the family that they occupy, by using a set of coping skills which then become birth order characteristics. For example, an only child may have to reconcile dealing with loneliness and intrusion (Isaacson, 1997).

However, numerical place in a family may not correspond to psychological birth order, or prompt development of particular archetypal characteristics that have been associated with a certain ordinal birth position. Birth order assessed according to numerical position has revealed contradictory findings in most areas that have been investigated (Ernst & Angst, 1983), potentially obscuring any true effects that may be due to the dynamics created by family constellation (Sulloway, 1996).

In Adlerian terms, a child is usually seen within the social structure of the family (Utay & Utay, 1996), however Adlerian theory purports that a child's situation should be regarded from the individual's perspective (Utay & Utay, 1996). Although criticised as an ad hoc addition to the investigation of how birth order may affect personality characteristics, a psychological birth order has been introduced to accommodate this Adlerian premise. In the instance that a second born child consistently outshines a weak or slow first born, he or she may assume the traits that Adler ascribed to the oldest child. The two then switch roles within family dynamics (Buckley, 1998), and the ordinal and psychological birth order characteristics differ. Responses to stress will then be characterised by the psychological birth order characteristics the individual has assumed.

Only the lonely

It has been suggested that only children have poorer interpersonal skills which result in less effective or fulfilling relationships. The proposed relationship has been suggested as resulting in poorer mental health, however this has not been borne out empirically (Falbo, 1984). There is some evidence that only children are actually under-represented among psychiatric and other clinical populations (Falbo, 1984). However in childhood they are referred more often for therapeutic intervention. This has been attributed to closer monitoring and overprotectiveness of parents (Falbo, 1984). However the assumption of poor social skills of only children is being put to rest (Buckley, 1998).

Surveys of literature predating 1945 emphasized the abnormality of only children's familial situation and risk of lifelong unhappiness and psychopathology. More recent investigations offer a more optimistic outlook (Ernst & Angst, 1983). In a thorough review of literature relating to only children throughout the lifespan (Falbo, 1984), much conflicting evidence, but no detrimental effects, were noted regarding development or mental health. However it was acknowledged that not much research followed individuals into adult life to determine if possible effects of being raised as a sole child has any lasting consequences (Falbo, 1984).

Both the high parental expectations usually reserved for eldest children and the pampering lavished on the youngest sibling in a family is often experienced by only children. Some research indicates that only children who attempt to fulfill all their parents' expectations are retarded in developing adulthood autonomy and are less independent than any other birth order (Byrd et al., 1993 in Buckley, 1998). This may be especially true of female only children who are traditionally expected to be more involved with their parents across the lifespan.

First born - best stressed?

The first born has an indeterminate period of access to parental attention, unencumbered by sibling interjection (Altus, 1972). Dethronement, a first born's experience upon the birth of a younger sibling, has become a popularised concept. Parental interaction with first born two year olds has been found to become more vigilant, less playful and more strained following the arrival of a sibling (Feiring, Lewis & Jaskir, 1983). According to a psychoanalytic view, distress instigated by this experience causes the older child much jealousy and bitterness which are often repressed and may manifest as adulthood insecurity (Falbo, 1984). It is generally agreed that there is some dethronement effect, but its strength and duration are not agreed upon. Subsequent offspring may also experience some distress when another child is born into the family (Ernst & Angst, 1983).

Although dethronement is frequently cited in case histories of children referred for psychiatric intervention, and a high incidence of behavioural problems are noted for dethroned older siblings, there is disagreement among mental health professionals about how much this event can be viewed as an instigator of psychopathology since it is a challenge that many children encounter (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982).

It has been suggested that it is parental inexperience, anxiety or incompetence rather than the experience of dethronement that may instill greater anxiety in first borns (Sears et al., 1957; Lasko, 1954 in Ernst & Angst, 1983). First born individuals may experience more inconsistent treatment which is thought to be detrimental to formation of a stable self concept and foster greater dependence and fearfulness (Hilton, 1967 in Ernst & Angst, 1983). This would also account for some similar characteristics displayed by only children (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Parents tend to become more experienced and permissive with laterborns.

Transition to parenthood is a major life event with long term consequences for individuals in families (Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992). Perhaps the most important opportunity for discrepancies between expectations of parenthood and experiences with child-rearing. occurs after the birth of the first child. These discrepancies between expectations and experiences may affect the ease of adjustment to parenthood. Experiences that are more negative than expected may be associated with a more difficult adjustment. This framework is based on the notion that it is not the nature of experiences alone which affect evaluations of experiences. Rather the evaluations are shaped by how experiences match expectations (Heider, 1958; Kelley & Thibaut, 1978 in Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992). Thus difficult parenting experiences that were anticipated may be associated with reports of easier adjustment to parenthood than such experiences that were unanticipated (Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992). Empirically, mothers' inflated expectancies were found not to match actual experiences at one year post birth, on relationship with spouses, friends, physical wellbeing, maternal competence and care giving assistance from spouses (Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992). High expectations might make transition more difficult because they are difficult to meet, while the reverse may be true for low expectations (Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992).

In studies comparing maternal psychological states before and after the birth of a first child, many new mothers were found to be overly anxious (Ounsted & Hendrick, 1977). Feeding problems, ill health of the neonate, sleep disturbances and difficulty in establishing a routine were implicated (Ounsted & Hendrick, 1977).

First and only children may seek out personal interaction as a response to distress more than individuals of other birth order positions according to early work in the field (Schachter, 1959 in Falbo, 1984). This was attributed to more attentive response to the child's distress (Falbo, 1984), presumably leading to the expectation that significant others will be comforting in times of distress (Falbo, 1984). New mothers generally respond more quickly to the distress of a first child and are slower to respond to later born children. Perhaps first borns may be more likely than their laterborn siblings to associate anxiety with affiliation, or comfort from others (Ernst & Angst, 1983).

Most research on the possible effects of birth order has concentrated on identifying personal characteristics that vary as a function of ordinal position. Many reports have concluded with conjecture about the effects of differing socialisation experiences for children of different ordinal positions. However few studies have observed actual behaviour of parents towards children of differencing birth order (Rothbart, 1972). The reports of greater academic achievement attained by first borns (Morjoribanks, 1997) has led to questions about the effects of parental expectations and pressures for success exerted upon the first born compared to subsequent children (Rothbart, 1972). Parents with no referent for childhood achievement may set an unnaturally high standard for performance from their first born (Rothbart, 1972). This may instill a greater drive to achieve in the child, and anxiety of inability to live up to parental expectations. If internalised, this chronic anxiety may alter habitual response to stress. Alternatively, realisation that parental expectations are unattainable may result in compromised self esteem (Ernst & Angst, 1983), also a risk factor for succumbing to negative effects of stressors. Laterborns, who strive for more attainable models, set by their older siblings, may have less conditional self esteem (Sampson, 1965; De Avila, 1971 in Ernst & Angst, 1983). Laterborns may become more flexible and open to change, as they must compete for parental attention. This could foster an innovative strategy for coping with stressors (Gould, 1997).

Parents tend to perceive oldest children as most intelligent and strong, and often give them more control over their environment than younger children. This has been associated with a controlling outlook in adulthood and obsession with rules and regulation (Buckley, 1998).

Birth order characteristics may manifest differently for males and females. Parents tend to be more restrictive with a first child due to the anxiety of not knowing how to deal with a new baby, and towards females in general, who are believed to receive harsher socialisation than males in many societies (Boling, Boling & Eisenman, 1993).

In the middle

Second born children are often expected to become more successful in innovative endeavours because their position requires competition against the first arrival (Bohmer & Sitton, 1993). The first born is the pace setter, and the second born must labour to keep up. This may instill a constant competitive drive (Bohmer & Sitton, 1993). Their earliest memories may be dominated by older, bigger, stronger and more advanced siblings. Catching up could become a main goal. Alternatively, setting high goals in a niche unoccupied by an older sibling may be a strategy adopted by a middle child. Unchecked, competitiveness may develop into restlessness or neuroticism (Richardson & Richardson, 1990).

The second born never expects complete parental attention, supposedly fostering greater cooperation. The stereotype of a neglected middle child may have some basis. This may be an internalised sense of lack of a specific role in the family, and difficulty finding a unique identity, especially after being displaced by a third born child (Buckley, 1998). However it may foster greater resilience to stressors, as well as diplomacy in dealing with a variety of personalities in attempts to negotiate potentially domineering older siblings, and attention-stealing younger siblings. It has been suggested that middle children may become the least anxious (Willem et al., 1972 in Ernst & Angst, 1983), harmonious, leisurely and extraverted individuals (Konig, 1963 in Ernst & Angst, 1983).

The experience of the youngest

Youngest children are supposedly more able to successfully pace themselves against older siblings without experiencing psychological exhaustion as the middle child(ren) may encounter (Buckley, 1998). They are thought to develop good social skills fostered by constant peer interaction. Individuals occupying this position in family dynamics have been found to be secure, yet dependent, which has been attributed to having many caretakers throughout childhood. Difficulty in establishing autonomy has been observed in adulthood, with accompanying feelings of inferiority and concerns that they are not regarded seriously (Richardson & Richardson, 1990). This is compounded by the realisation that throughout childhood everyone else was stronger, older and more competent, and the worry that they can never compete on equal footing (Ernst & Angst, 1983).


Twins share the birth order position that they occupy. If they are the only two children, they will each share some of the characteristics of the oldest and the youngest child. In situations in which the minutes or hours between their deliveries are emphasized by the family, diluted characteristics of other ordinal position may be experienced (Richardson & Richardson, 1990).

Their often intense emotional bond may result in difficulty achieving individuation later in life (Richardson & Richardson, 1990). Since siblings often actively seek to be different from each other to establish their own identities, this issue may be particularly distressing for twins (Buckley, 1998).

Since birth order characteristics are most often explained by relationships with parents, research comparing twins and only children could be of particular interest. Only children are an extreme case of first borns, since they have their parents to themselves during their entire childhood. Laterborns only ever have divided attention. Twins are an extreme case of laterborns, since there is no child-rearing interval between them. They are often treated as a unity. Differences between twins and singletons that are not attributable to biological differences could provide useful insight into determining how ordinal position may impact personality and development (Ernst & Angst, 1983).

Parental attitudes

"Being raised by the same parents is not the same thing as having been raised in the same environment"

Wachs, 1983, in Alford (1998)

Although mothers usually show a high level of consistency in how they raise first and second born children when those children were at the same age, often children do not perceive this, or don't have the cognitive or emotional skills to do so (Musun-Miller, 1993).

Perception of parental favouritism is common. In a recent study, 62% of subjects reported that they believed one or both parents favoured one child in their family (Zervas, 1994). Birth order was one of the main reasons subjects gave for this occurrence (Zervas, 1994). In1932, Adler conceded that the favoured child has a developmental advantage, but that the deleterious influence on other children in the family is difficult to estimate (Zervas, 1994).

Zervas (1994) discussed views purporting that children's self esteem is reliant on their perceptions of how their parents and significant others, view and treat them. Children who perceive themselves as the non-favoured child may experience feelings of inferiority, anger, depression and incompetence. The favoured child may benefit from the greater security and adoration, but may be troubled by sibling jealousy, greater obligations to parents (Carson et al., 1992), or guilt and empathy depending on the sibling relationship. Favoured children have been found to exhibit lower social self esteem (Zervas, 1994), which has been attributed to more frequent peer rejections and less opportunity to socialise due to home support and obligations (Zervas, 1994). Expression of favouritism is regarded as detrimental to the functioning of the entire family (Bieber, 1977 in Zervas, 1994).

Parent and child relationships are extremely important in the formation of self esteem, which is considered a crucial contributor to psychological well being (Zervas, 1994). It is still debated whether the component of self esteem influenced most by parental relationships is restricted to the familial environment or if it is global (Zervas, 1994).

It has been suggested that exclusively relying on children's perceptions of favouritism may not be an accurate reflection of actual occurrences (Zervas, 1994). However the realisation that it is the perception of the situation that affects individuals' responses and the formation of self esteem, indicates that these subjective assessments of familial situations may still be instructive (Zervas, 1994).

Parental feedback

The differences between siblings thought to be due to ordinal position of birth are generally believed to arise through differential socialisation by parents (Ernst & Angst, 1983). How this is effected is controversial (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Much research is descriptive, however analysing parental feedback styles may provide insight into how potential birth order characteristics could be formed (Claxton, 1994).

Empirical evidence suggests that the amount of process or outcome feedback an individual receives may be associated with birth order status (Claxton, 1994). This implies that birth order based differences in parental feedback may contribute to personality and behavioural differences that have been linked to ordinal positions of birth (Claxton, 1994).

Process feedback involves information concerning how an individual implements a strategy, while outcome feedback concerns judgment of performance (Earley et al., 1990 in Claxton, 1994). Process feedback has a direct effect on the development, quality and use of task and coping strategies. Effective communication to children of task strategies facilitates performance. Communication of outcome feedback increases risk of learning and exhibiting inappropriate behaviour (Earlry et al., 1990 in Claxton, 1994). Outcome feedback is regarded as less effective than process feedback for specific adjustment of strategies, especially for dealing with complex stimuli (Claxton, 1994). Process feedback is more time consuming to give than outcome feedback, as it is more detailed and instructive (Claxton, 1994). In an environment where learning is transmitted from parent to child, and parents have fewer demands created by a single child than several children, perhaps firstborns may be exposed to more process feedback (Bohmer & Sitton, 1993). Greater exposure to process feedback may differentially socialise firstborns to be more skilled at identifying the most effective strategies (Claxton, 1994). This inference does assumes that parents are competent at transmitting the most appropriate information. In an investigation of types of feedback received by individuals occupying different birth order positions, last born respondents reported significantly less of both process feedback and outcome feedback from parents. Differences in parental feedback to children are not regarded as conscious, but may result from changes in child-rearing experience, or parental workload. It may be instructive for researchers to differentiate between positive and negative feedback in extending these findings (Claxton, 1994).

Parental expectations

Each family member experiences and interprets family dynamics differently. Siblings growing up in the same family may have vastly different childhood experiences. Research has indicated that inter-family experiences may be almost as diverse as between-family experiences (Richardson & Richardson, 1990). Part of the differences in family experiences might be due to parental expectations which vary by birth order. Adults seem to have higher expectations for first borns and tend to describe their first borns more positively than subsequent arrivals (Kalmuss & Davidson, 1992). Differences may also be attributable to the tone that the sibling constellation itself brings to family interaction, determined by sibling spacing, gender and birth order (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982).

Parents rated pre-adolescent children more harshly than their younger children (Musun-Miller, 1993). Perhaps birth order is more of a factor in attributions at one age than another. It could have either an augmenting or offsetting effect on age related attributions and expectations (Musun-Miller, 1993). Clinicians working with troubled families may find it useful to assess the type of attributions that parents are making about their children's behaviour and whether there is a harsher tone to the attributions made about children occupying various ordinal positions (Musun-Miller, 1993). Attributions made by parents may shape how they respond to their children, or communicate expectations concerning the children's development (Musun-Miller, 1993). Establishing a clearer association between parental attributions and the behaviour they exhibit towards their children would be instructive in determining how this may affect parent and child relationships (Musun-Miller, 1993).

Self esteem

Social comparison theory states that level of self esteem is determined through comparison of the self with others. First and only children compare themselves to their parents, whereas laterborns compare themselves to older siblings. The former, an adult to child comparison will yield a greater discrepancy than the latter child to child comparison. This has been hypothesized to result in lower self esteem for first born and only children (Zimbardo & Formica, 1963 in Falbo, 1984). In empirical attempts at validation of this theory, only borderline significance was obtained in one study, but stronger effects were found for samples of white males from high socioeconomic backgrounds (Kaplan, 1970 in Falbo, 1984). Other researchers have theorised that higher self esteem is more likely for the highest ranked ordinal birth position due to receiving more unconditional positive regard from parents than laterborns receive (Falbo, 1984). Empirical investigation has resulted in conflicting findings, however there seems to be support for this theory in some studies of male children, particularly those from certain minority groups (Rosenberg, 1965 in Falbo, 1984).

Although there are differences in how individuals of different birth orders respond to questionnaires such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) it has not been established if there is a relationship between birth order and neurotic or psychotic symptoms (Altus, 1972).


Effects of perceived parental attitudes in childhood on the onset of adult psychopathology is a well studied field (Kitamura, Sugawara, Shima & Toda, 1998). Parker identified two aspects of retrospective perceptions of parental child-rearing practices. Care, reflecting the spectrum ranging from warmth to coldness, and overprotection, which reflects the spectrum between degradation/demands and respect for the child's autonomy/self determination (Parker, 1983b in Kitamura et al., 1998). Individuals experiencing depression with a neurotic component, have been found to report a lower degree of care and a greater degree of over protection in childhood (Parker & Hafzi-Pavlovic, 1982 in Kitamura et al., 1998), a finding that has had some replication (Parker 1983a in Kitamura et al., 1998). For adult psychopathology with stress as a component of its onset, it may be clinically and theoretically useful to understand how these parental attitudes were formed. This could allow for more effective interventions and prevention. For researchers it may provide insight about the link between perceptions of childhood experiences in different birth order positions and adult experiences of psychopathology (Kitamura et al., 1998).

A relationship between ordinal position of birth and a variety of psychopathologies has been suggested (Ernst & Angst, 1983). The belief that first borns experience more mental illness has been widespread (Skinner, 1997). In a study in which first born males were found to obtain lower psychological wellbeing scores than their laterborn counterparts, no differences were found between females of different birth orders (Fullerton et al., 1989). Yet, first borns have also been found to score lower on measures of depression than second, third, fourth born and youngest children, and exhibit less anxiety and higher self esteem (Gates, Lineberger, Crockett & Hubbard 1988). It may be instructive to analyse these effects at different stages through the lifespan, as it is thought that some of these conflicting results could be effects of change over the lifespan.

The relationship between birth order position and psychopathology is well researched (Altus, 1972), but remains poorly understood due to contradictory findings (Altus, 1972). During childhood, first borns are over represented among problem children (Adler, 1956 in Skinner, 1997). It is thought by some that they have a greater vulnerability to stress (Shulman & Mosak, 1977 in Skinner, 1997), addictive substance abuse and sensitivity to pain in adulthood (Skinner, 1997). First born female adults have been found to score higher on dimension of hypochondria than laterborn women (Skinner, 1997). This has been associated with being raised by parents lacking child-rearing experience. It may be related to an excessively strong or pathological concern about the first child's development. This is thought to be generated by unrealistic assessment of the severity of childhood maladies and excessive sympathetic behaviour during illness (Skinner, 1997). This over concern has been linked to a morbid fixation on their own physical health throughout the lifespan (Skinner, 1997). This effect may be particularly true for female children, since gender role socialisation concerning illness behaviour may be involved (Skinner, 1997).

Associations between other birth order positions and mental health problems have also been suggested. Among a sample of adult women identified as chemically dependent, a psychological profile traditionally attributed to a third ordinal birth position was over represented. It was suggested that a contributing factor to the substance abuse was a need to establish a unique place in the family constellation (Utay & Utay, 1996).

Extreme Influences on development

First born children may be at greater risk of developmental problems in single parent families. Faced with an inexperienced caretaker, this is the child that may have benefited most from two parents. With limited adult care taking, deleterious effects of a nervous first time parent may be more pronounced (McCarthy & Anglin, 1990).

Within a family system, children adopt roles to fit into the family (Alford, 1998). In families affected by substance abuse, roles adopted may be altered to accommodate the dysfunction. Parental substance abuse impacts the normal role definition within the family constellation (Alford, 1998). Adult children of alcoholics frequently have pathological issues with rigid role pattens that were initiated during childhood to survive emotionally in a family rendered dysfunctional by substance abuse (Alford, 1998). Roles assigned according to ordinal position of birth may become more identifiable or even take on a caricature of the archetypal birth order characteristics.

Siblings of children with disabilities have been found to perceive that their mothers were more partial to their disabled siblings, than did children without disabled siblings (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). A great deal of literature indicates that the former children experience more stress than children without disabled siblings, and have implied that they are at higher risk for developing behavioural problems and psychopathology (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). Sibling relationships in families with children with disabilities are complex and are affected by a number of variables including care-taking responsibilities, age, socioeconomic status, severity of the disability as well as birth order (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). Parental attitudes and orchestration of the situation have also been suggested as important factors (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). The situation has also been suggested as an opportunity to foster greater maturity, understanding and social development (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). Some studies have found no relationship between siblings with disabilities and problems (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). However self report measures used may be unreliable. Since children often perceive a difference in parental attention not matched by parental assessment of the situation, direct observation may be useful (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). Even if children do not report that they find the situation stressful, 63% of children in a study of six to 13 year olds, expressed an interest in discussing family interactions which involved a disabled sibling. This may reflect an important area for services and resources (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). It was suggested that this be implemented in a way that provides opportunity for siblings to develop an identity apart from the potentially stressful home environment, apart form the sibling with a disability, and to assist siblings in developing coping and problem-solving strategies (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991).

The traditional nuclear family in which the birth order archetypes are based, may no longer be representative of the general population (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). In a nuclear family, birth order is stable, however in blended families, where both parents bring children from previous relationships to the union, there is a disruption in the hierarchy of birth order. Children may lose their sense of stability and may feel that they have lost their place in the family (Buckley, 1998). This disruption in home life may be a substantial source of distress. Assisting children faced with these situations in realising that their identity is not determined by their place in their previous or present family, and that this does not affect their sense of self, may be helpful (Buckley, 1998).

Birth order research matures

"Human beings are too complex to be stuffed into narrow pigeonholes"

Townsend, 1997

Birth order effects are seldom unitary but involve other family aspects such as gender of siblings and differences in age (Altus, 1972). Although difficult to ascertain, most studies have not considered whether the child was wanted or planned which often affects parental child rearing practices (Lieberman, 1972; Baydar, 1995). Birth order researchers have also consistently failed to control for potential confounding variables such as social class and family size (Sulloway, 1996).

Because of interaction effects with age, gender, sibling spacing nd others, the effects of birth order could actually be underestimated (Sulloway, 1996). The birth order literature has lacked an adequate theoretical perspective (Sulloway, 1996), which has resulted in much of the ambiguity currently plaguing the field. What may be consistent about birth order effects is the "general gist of strategies" that individuals occupying particular ordinal positions may utilise to deal with the particular stressors that their position in the family constellation engenders, and not the specific behaviours employed to achieve these ends (Sulloway, 1996).

The lure of providing documentation of nurture's power cannot be denied as a powerful motivator in pursuing the effects that environmental pressures may exert in shaping the personal characteristics of individuals. It may eventually provide a useful tool for realising some strengths and weaknesses instilled by being placed at a certain order in the family. However, a potential danger is that individuals may become constrained by stereotypes imposed by themselves and others, if they believe that the archetypal roles cannot be transcended. Learned responses can be altered. Children's coping skills can be modified through creative problem solving experiences, conflict management, and training at home and school (Carson et al., 1992).

Most birth order research has been conducted in contemporary western culture, where there is growing parental awareness about minimizing sibling rivalry and fostering strong ties with each child. In non-industrialised societies, particular roles assigned according to birth order are adhered to much more rigidly, and are reinforced by societal norms (Cicirelli, 1994). In countries where there is great importance associated with having male offspring, delivery of a female child may be a grave disappointment and compromise the child's physical and emotional care (Kitamura et al., 1998). Examination of how development is affected in cultures with a much greater overt emphasis on birth order roles may be useful. It may begin to remedy the ambiguity that has resulted from much of the research undertaken in western societies, where there is greater emphasis on choice, individuality and transcending stereotypes.


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