The Significance of Birth Order
Relationships begin at home. It is in the family where we are first tested and where we receive the first rude elements of our own identity. Or at least of our social identity, upon which so much of our later, more mature ‘sense of self’ depends. The eldest or only child has only his/her parents to please and apart from that can please him or herself. Their identity therefore stems from only one, narrow, relatively guaranteed and usually uncomplicated relationship. As a result, a rather headstrong, self-centered, determined, assertive and uncompromising, possibly arrogant sense of self [personality] tends to characterize the eldest or only child. Natural leaders by virtue of birth, and unused to compromise, they are rarely challenged.
With the arrival of the second child a new power dynamic is established: they must not only please their parents, whose affection they crave, but they must also deal with their elder sibling; inevitably this means some compromise. They fight a lot and vie with each other for the affection of their parents. They are rivals much of the time and fight playfully, falling in and out of love constantly like small kittens. While the first child was born into a completely new situation requiring few demands or compromise and more or less guaranteeing a continuous supply of undivided affection, all the later children have a diluted sense of worth and gradually command reducing amounts of attention and affection from their parents. Both are also divided to some degree between them all.
From the perspective of self-image and social identity, the third child is born into an even more complex and compromising environment. He or she arrives into a ready-made family with pre-formed complex relationships and power dynamics, about none of which he/she was consulted or involved. He or she not only wishes to gain affection of the parents (upon whom sanity depends) but must also negotiate with the other siblings and establish tolerably harmonious relationships with them. They stand in his/her way and between the third child and the parents whose affection and approval they crave. Thus there is a potential ‘zone of discomfort’ standing between the third child and their parents, occupied by the two older siblings. They feel more distant, a stranger almost, coming into this comfortable environment with its own power structures already formed, and in which they feel excluded very easily and any little upset or challenge to their identity is upsetting and lonely.
In any rivalry with the two older children, the third child feels especially threatened and insecure; nervous to some degree and at times even paranoid. The older siblings can appear to the third child like enemies blocking his/her access to and contact with the parents. They potentially threaten his/her supply of affection.
To the third child, the older siblings can at times seem like an uncomfortable barrier which cuts him her off from natural affection. Thus they may feel cooler towards their parents and more sensitive of any threat to their natural affection, to which they feel entitled by birthright. The parents at times also seem at times to be colluding with the older siblings and acting against the interests of the third child. This gives the impression of being 'ganged up against', cut-off and excluded. Of an unfair three-against-one situation. Thus they can often feel lonely, excluded and left out. Feeling so marginalized can affect their identity. They tend to feel more distant and aloof, detached even and emotionally neutral to most of what happens. At times they may seem hesitant, confused, unsure and ambivalent. They cannot ‘take sides’, for to do so threatens some power relationship on one side or the other, which amounts to a non-option which will leave them all alone and excluded. Probably nothing terrifies the third child more than being excluded, left-out and lonely. They are constantly being forced to compromise, be diplomatic and to negotiate for any territory. Thus they develop a new sense of identity based not upon brash assertiveness but upon guile, quiet diplomacy and trying to please everybody. To some extent they seek and take refuge in friendships formed outside the home, as they have a little more control over them than those existing within the family.
Now imagine that the third child is adopted....In a home void of emotional abuse or family dysfunction. The problems are many
with all of the above negative impacts by siblings and parents. Without the necessity for identity biological mirroring, there are no clues for the adopted child to recognize himself in a mirror, nothing exists in the adopted child's world that is familiar or brings comfort from the extreme loneliness and isolation that the adoptee experiences. Being the third child is also plagued by a mother that is depressed, too busy or too self centered to acknowledge the adopted child's trauma, inability to be cohesive or to assist the adopted child with their complex emotional needs, so the adopted child suffers in silence.