Dear David Coleman: Why is my middle child so quick to anger?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My five-year-old son is the middle of three children. He's sensitive, bright, and very very quick to anger. He goes from huge anger to extreme happiness, in literally seconds. This only happens at home, as his teacher says he is "flying it" at school. I think it could be his place in the family. His older sister is very confident and happy, whilst his baby brother does benefit from that "cute" factor and gets loads of attention. He will often say terrible things about how awful he is, how he hates himself, to how he wants his family to die. Please help.
A. I think you may have guessed correctly when you hypothesised that his place in the family might be an important factor in understanding his behaviour. The concept of a "middle child syndrome" is often mooted and I think there is some truth in it, even though it isn't actually a psychological descriptor or a clinical diagnosis.
Where you come in the family, in terms of birth order, does not define your personality. However, what birth order can influence is the way in which you get treated, or attended to, in a family. So, for example, we classically expect first born children in a family to be the first to accrue privileges with age (so first to stay up later, first to sit in the front seat of the car and so on). First-born children may also have benefitted (or sometimes suffered!) from the undivided attention of their parents and extended family.
The youngest child of three, as you describe in your query, often gets the benefit of "cuteness" and may be a little more indulged than their older siblings. They usually have a choice of parents and older siblings to get attention from and this might add to their experience of having a "special" status in the family.
The theory, for middle children, is that they can get squeezed, neither having the kudos of being eldest, nor the cuteness of being youngest. They may be overlooked in terms of parental time, attention or special treatment. Some children may develop a habit of being extra-helpful, or always present with their parent, to ensure they get noticed. Others might show their displeasure at being overlooked by getting angry or aggressive.
This could well help us to understand your son's experiences. His frustration and angry outbursts might be his best way of showing you and his dad that he is unhappy or upset generally about something, or maybe jealous of his siblings in some way.
Similarly, his dramatic statements about how much he hates himself, or thinks himself to be awful, might be his best effort at engendering sympathy and caring from you. When he wishes you all dead, I don't imagine he means it literally, I think he is trying to express just how frustrated he feels with something that's happening at a given moment in time.
It is great to know that he doesn't express any of the same kind of frustrations and temper tantrums at school or with others. This fact also does support the idea that it is something about the dynamic at home that really bothers him.
So, if you think he may be experiencing some kind of sibling rivalry or sibling envy, suggest it to him. Talk with him about what you think might be going on for him. You might make empathy statements to him, like, "everyone seems to think your baby brother is so cute. I'd say it's annoying for you when they forget to tell you how cute you are."
Or, you might want to say something like, "when people praise your sister for being so confident, you might feel like that means that you can't be confident too. Maybe you sometimes feel like you need to be the opposite of her."
Rather than trying to then compare him, his strengths or abilities with hers, just acknowledge that he and she are different and then comment on all the things that you love about him, that are individual to him.
Often it matters less if we are guessing correctly about what is bothering our children and it matters more that we are simply making an effort to try to understand what bothers them. Even your attempts to empathise with his position in the family may help him feel especially noticed and attended to by you. It may be that he just needs this kind of special attention.
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