Dear David Coleman: Our son is a classic middle child and fights constantly with his siblings - what can we do?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. We have three boys age 13, 11 and 6. Our 11-year-old fights constantly with his older and younger brothers. He's the least academic in a very academic family, although he has loads of other talents and is loved by uncles and aunts for his personality. It's natural that all three boys want our attention, but the middle boy demands that we listen to him, and can get upset to the point of tears if he feels that we're failing to do so. Every day. It frustrates his brothers. Is this the classic problem of a middle child? How might we balance the demands of all three?
David replies: I do think that birth order can have an impact on how the personalities of our children develop.
There is some evidence that supports the stereotypes we might think about of eldest children, for example, being more anxious and more responsible. There are examples of middle children who are either really 'good' or really challenging. Youngest children are often found to be the most relaxed, easygoing or 'spoiled' and demanding.
Perhaps your middle son being very demanding and constantly in conflict with his brothers just fits this stereotype. However, the danger of thinking stereotypically is it tends to limit our view of the person.
Sibling rivalry, of some kind, exists in most families where there is more than one child. It makes sense in the context that there is a limited amount of parental time, attention, approval and energy, and so children might compete for that.
Unwittingly we can also set up competition between our children with our explicit or implicit comparisons between them. "Look! Your sister sits at the table, why can't you?" or "why is it always you that I have to fight with about homework?".
Sometimes children retaliate against a sibling who always seems to get lots of our attention, while they themselves always seem to get less. This might be at the heart of your other boys' frustrations with their middle brother.
At the same time, your middle son may also feel like he doesn't measure up academically. He may even, at a more extreme level, characterise himself as the 'stupid' one in the family, where his good results don't compare favourably to the 'excellent' ones of his brothers.
Children often take on roles within the family. For example, we often describe them in role-based shorthand "he's the artistic one", "there's our bookworm, always curled up on the sofa", "that's our joker, right there".
The difficulty this presents is that children can then feel boxed in to a given, or assumed role, and feel like they can't be different to what is expected of them.
Maybe your middle son feels trapped into being "the demanding child"?
I am a big believer in the expression "it isn't until the bad feelings come out, that the good feelings can come in". I think this was a phrase used by the authors of the book Siblings Without Rivalry. As an aside, that book might be an excellent resource for you.
But, returning to the concept that we must allow our children to express their negative feelings about their siblings, we can see it almost as a release valve. If we never allow children to complain or give out about a sibling, then they may store up a lot of bad feeling, which will invariably appear in some kind of conflict at some point.
So, empathise with your middle son's view of his two brothers. Show him that you might understand what it is like to be stuck between two high achievers. Allow him to moan to you and he may be less likely to show his frustrations to his brothers.
It will also help all three boys if you can show them that you can understand how difficult it is, in a busy house, for them all to feel like their needs are being met. They may resent the fact that another brother seems to get more than them. Naturally that might prompt any one of them to demand their fair share.
That resentment may well get acted out as conflict between them. This conflict may be offset, more often, if you can help them to see things from their brothers' perspectives.
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