The College Experience Deconstructed: Middle child syndrome – yes, it’s real

By: Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer

Sandwiched between the first born-child, who is assumed accountable and granted responsibilities, and the youngest, who is presumed innocent and granted a get-out-of-jail-free-for-life card, the middle child can find themselves starved for attention and acknowledgement. Despite parents’ best intentions, this recurring phenomenon imprints certain personality characteristics on a developing child. Those traits, tied to birth order, we term ‘Middle Child Syndrome’ (MCS for short).

As a totally legit website, Middle Child Personality.com, summarizes: “children born in the middle experience feelings of emptiness, inadequacy and jealousy. It is also characterized by low self-esteem and extreme introversion…” In my experience, adult middle children are stereotypically considered moody, melodramatic, apathetic and sensitive, and have trouble maintaining relationships and steady employment.

As the child grows, it experiences the same needs as its siblings – attachment, security, trust, positive regard – and like a flower next to a window or a seed under a sidewalk, will adapt to meet those needs however their environment presents as feasible.

Not without repercussions though.

If the child is unsuccessful at getting the attention they need from their parents, they begin to feel that they are not unconditionally loved. Consequently, they do not easily trust others. As such children grow up, these unmet needs manifest as an amorphous blob, a need to be assured of its security. But in the time of highest need that certainty was absent. Middle children acutely sense differential treatment by their parents, and given their yet to be fully developed brain, makes the most logical conclusion it can – that they will never be enough to secure love and connection.

In the classic ‘Middle Child Syndrome,’ middle children’s achievements are given less consideration than those of the eldest. For their misbehavior, middle children receive harsher punishments than the youngest (the ‘baby’ of the family), who because of relative age is granted immunity.

Trapped between these poles, in the end the middle child feels unappreciated, forgotten and unloved. To meet their unmet needs in adolescence and beyond, middle children simultaneously flock to social life and maintain a safe distrustful distance. They crave recognition for their efforts, since they felt that they are overlooked and unrecognized, and thus are often late to learn intrinsic motivation.

And yes, this very much impacts your college years.

College presents daunting challenges for everyone: how to face new periods of time without structure and without a clear figure to turn to, and expectations of adult relationships and adult-level work (just what is this thing called a major people keep talking about?). As a stereotypical middle child, I get hives just thinking about responsibility.

Unacknowledged, MCS is ascribed to moral failings, usually that we internalize. I’m stupid. Why don’t I care? I must be lazy, just like people always said. That girl in my women and gender studies class ghosted me after class? Sigh. Well, shouldn’t be shocked—she must have realized how boring I am.

Morbid, yes, but step one to making it through college with a degree, a smile and a box full of memories is to recognize yourself and seek understanding. You are not lazy, you just never got the chance to learn the satisfaction of work. You are lovable – you just don’t let anyone get close enough to hurt you like you felt in the past. And you are smart – the world drilled into you that you weren’t good enough, it was never anything you did or didn’t do.

Step two is closely watching your internal reactions to life. Why am I feeling this way? Are these thoughts and feelings plausibly true, or are they sprung from a memory trace laid long ago lighting up realities of years before? Lean into these questions. Guilt and hurt is bearable if you can manifest and engage it. It is of great importance to take stock of yourself and identify what you are feeling and what is causing you issues or roadblocks. When you know, you can focus yourself on the right activities.

Cut yourself some slack and understand that what makes you tick is different. Respect the way you feel and respond. It’s part of what makes you, you, and whether you see it or not these experiences teach you a lot about human nature. How? We are more open-minded, savvy negotiators, and free from the smothering expectations borne by our older brothers and sisters.

To all us middle children out there – you’re damn great.

Just the way you are.

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