There has been some misunderstanding of my custom of understanding according to position in the family. It is not of course the child’s number in the order of successive births which influence his character, but the total situation into which he is born and lives, and the way in which he interprets it. – Alfred Adler, M.D.
Upon closer examination, it is found that each child has an essentially different position in the family and must see all the circumstances of his childhood in an entirely different light. The only fundamental law governing the developing child’s character is that he trains those qualities by which he hopes to achieve significance or even a degree of power and superiority in the family constellation. – Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D.
No two children are born into the same family
The psychological value of considering the birth order position is that it reveals the vantage from which the child perceives and evaluated self, others, and the world, and from which the child forms convictions about what is required of him or of her to make a place, given the heredity endowment and the environmental opportunities in the given situation. – Robert L. Powers
UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMIC IMPACT OF BIRTH ORDER
Steven A. Maybell, Ph.D.
- Always consider psychological position vs. ordinal position. A therapist can always rely upon the client, e.g. for a client who had two older siblings, “Did it feel more like you were a youngest of two, or an only child.”
- Psychological Competition is a primary dynamic when considering birth order vantage dynamics. When a second child comes along, she/he in an effort to find a unique place of significance seeks to:
- Avoid those areas where the older sibling is most prominent or capable. – Develop in those areas where the older sibling is less prominent or capable.
- This in turns “cements” the orientation of the older sibling, who wishes also to be unique, by being different than the younger sibling.
- The other dynamic of psychological competition occurs when the younger child decides to compete directly in the same “field of activity” as the older brother or sister with an effort to surpass the older sibling. This is referred to as the “Avis” child – “I’m #2 but I try harder”.
- The greatest psychological competition exists between children of the same gender and who are close in age.
- Psychological competition can play out through the life cycle, e.g. a first-born, suddenly depressed and discouraged at age 35 and did not know why. Exploration revealed that his younger sibling recently graduated with his doctoral degree.
- Take age differences into consideration. Where there are gaps of three or more years, it is common for the birth order to begin anew, creating birth order subgroups.
- Blended or step-families go through a period of disorientation and competition for “place” as there is typically two first-borns, two youngest, etc
- Look always for the dynamic of dethronement, for the next oldest sibling when a new sib- ling comes along. This tends to be temporary.
- When displacement occurs, meaning the younger sibling overtakes the older with respect to accomplishments, this is much more devastating in the long run.
- The way in which gender is defined by the parents in a family has strong impact on psycho- logical birth order. Boys and girls may be assigned a very different value and very different roles in the family. A firstborn daughter, for example, whatever her ordinal position may have significant domestic and care-taking responsibilities. The firstborn son may be given heightened value and privilege even though he is not born first.
- Health/Mental Health problems have impact. A developmentally disabled child, for example, can remain in the ‘baby’ position regardless of ordinal position. This in turn impacts the psychological position of the other children.
- Adopted children are in a unique place in a family. Parents may be so thankful for the child that they are overindulgent. At the same time the child may be plagued by not being wanted by the biological parents. If the adopted child is in a family with biological siblings, the adopted child may feel different and alienated from the rest of the family.
- When a child dies in the family, this can have an effect on the position of the other children. Dynamics may include the over-indulgence of the remaining children, or the deceased child being so idealized in the family, as to present an impossible image to live up to.
- Twins know, as do the rest of the family, who was born first and who was not.
- Adler pointed out that in his experience the extreme positions tend to experience the extreme problems. I have found this also to be true.
- In all modalities of treatment individual, couple, and family therapy, uncovering psycho- logical birth order dynamics can be most useful and at times key to understanding the case. It can be a most illuminating process to look at birth order combinations between parents and their kids, and between members of a couple.In some cases, birth order dynamics are primary in their impact on lifestyle or relationship dynamics. In other cases the impact of birth order is secondary to other more prominent issues and dynamics, e.g. family atmosphere, parenting styles, gender guiding lines, memorable or traumatic experiences.