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THRONED AND DETHRONED: THE BIRTH ORDER MATRIXHOW DO THE ROLES PLAYED BY SIBLINGS DEFINE CHILDREN’S LIVES?

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by Barbra Williams Cosentino, R.N., C.S.W.

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"Oh, you're not planning on having any more children? Be careful —only children are spoiled brats, you know." "Emily is your middle child? Ah, no wonder she's so easy-going." "David's the baby of the family? So that's why he's such a little ham/always trying to get attention/so sure that he'll always get his way." No matter how many children you have, don't have, or are planning to have, your mother-in-law, the check-out lady at the supermarket, and your best friend from Mommy-and-Me are probably ready and willing to share their not-always-scientifically-based ideas on what it means for your child to be an only, the baby, or the oldest in the family. Their theories might be based on intuition (and may very well have some validity), but a number of psychologists and child-rearing experts have used family interviews, longitudinal studies and other tools to develop their own theories on how birth order affects personality and family dynamics. Understanding these ways can help us to be sensitive to the special issues which may impact our children's growth and development, thus lessening sibling rivalry, enhancing the parent-child bond and allowing each child to grow up feeling loved, valued and understood. Many years ago, psychologist Alfred Adler postulated that birth order position was a major influence on personality development, along with other potentially significant influences such as parental attitudes, gender differences and socioeconomic factors. Adler suggested that the only child, who receives "200 percent of the parents' attention", often has difficulty sharing playmates and prefers adult company to the companionship of peers, while the oldest child, who is dethroned by the one born after, may become authoritarian or strict, feeling that power is his natural birthright. Adler believed that the psychological situation of each child in the family is different, with the child's opinion of himself and his place or role in the family being just as important as the actual birth order. If circumstances permit, Adler suggested, a child's birth order might be seized by another child, meaning that characteristics typical of the youngest might, for example, be manifested by an older child. More recently, researchers have looked at ways in which birth order may play a role in the type of occupations people are drawn to. A study published in The Journal of Career Assessment demonstrated that only children — and to a certain extent first born children, tended to lean toward intellectual, analytic and cognitive pursuits, whereas later-borns had more interest in both artistic and outdoor-related careers. The study's authors speculated that this might occur because parents are extra-protective of single or first-born children, worrying about their physical safety and discouraging them from participating in sports or other physical activities. Single children also get more time and individual attention from parents, may be read to on a more regular basis, and may be encouraged to pursue interests which might lead to a prestigious career such as doctor or lawyer. The study points out, "As they have more children, parents tend to become more open and relaxed, and that may allow the younger ones to be more risk-taking and unconventional." In his recent book, The Birth Order Effect, Cliff Isaacson, a professional counselor and minister who has expanded on Adler's ideas, points out that, according to birth order theory, there are five personalities which may or may not correlate with the child's actual chronological place in the family. There are no "good" or "bad personalities, says Isaacson, who compares birth order personality to the hand of cards that we have been dealt in our lives, adding, "We cannot change the cards in our hands — we can only choose how and when we will play them." Isaacson's "birth order matrix" provides a map to the unfolding terrain of a person's life, delineating the typically-seen characteristics, challenges and coping strategies faced by the only child, the first-born, second-born, third-born and fourth-born. Specific personalities, which develop as children attempt to find their place in the family constellation, are shaped by interactions and relationships with their siblings, rather than solely in response to the parent-child interplay. Isaacson lists six rules of thumb, which provide an easy framework for understanding the birth order: —except for the first-born and only child, children develop birth order characteristics by coping with the next older child — the only child has to deal with being by himself or herself (thus learning to be self-sufficient and to enjoy being alone) — the first-born must cope with the loss of attention to the second-born — the second-born must constantly cope with the attention-seeking first-born — the third-born must cope with the perfectionist second-born — the fourth-born must cope with a strong-willed third-born There are special conditions which influence the birth order effect, Isaacson adds, pointing out that if there are five or more years between the first and second child, the first-born psychologically remains an only child while the second child is also an "only child" — unless there is a third-born, who would cause the second born child to become a “first-born personality”. If the mother has help once the new baby is home (particularly from a loving grandmother), the first-born will not lose as much attention and will be better able to retain his or her “only child birth order personality”. Gender of siblings and their temperaments are also factors which affect the birth order effect. A breakdown of a marriage and separating of siblings, the joining of step-siblings into a family, the death of a child (a child may step into the missing child’s role), the adoption of another child, or a big gap in the family can all throw the birth order theories out of whack.

Dr Kevin Leman, a bestselling author and typical ‘baby of the family’, suggests in his book, The New Birth Order Book, suggests that first-born children are usually the high achievers of the family. When he speaks before a group of successful businessmen, his opening sentence is usually, “Can you raise your hand if you are the first born child in your family”. He isn’t surprised when almost all the hands are raised. They tend to be great leaders, show organizational skills, are logical, scholarly, and are good at solving problems. They are good team players, and usually leave no stone unturned to do a good job. On the down side the first born child can be rather bossy and aggressive, and may pay more attention to facts and getting the job done than to a person’s feelings, which can lead to conflict. They may also suffer from stress and a feeling of needing to achieve, causing them to become driven people. One and only children are very similar to a first-born child in their character traits but because of their family situation they may be harder on themselves, too critical of others and sometimes a little lonely. Dr Leman calls them Super First Borns. If you have a middle child, you may notice that he is a bit of a loner. While his siblings are playing together, he may be the one sitting alone in the sandpit, preferring his own company. He may also be impatient and easily frustrated, or even be known as the family goat, or a rebel later in life. On the up side, middle children are very loyal in their relationships and especially when they have their own children. It’s thought that they believe they never fitted into the family, and it subsequently makes them work hard at building new relationships, and finding their own individuality. They are generally the most trustworthy of marriage partners. They show lots of independence early on, and are very strong-minded, with often comes across as ‘strong willed’. Friends are really important to a middle child. Others show great mediator abilities and can be the peacemakers of the family. Dr Leman believes that middle children are a mystery. A rather sore point with a lot of middle or youngest born children is the word ‘family photo album’. It seems that the first born child had rolls of film taken of him, but then the camera seemed to slow down in its old age. Babies of the family are usually show offs. They like the limelight, can be charming, and are great at ‘clowning around’, but they often have a dark side, too. They may come across as manipulative, talk too much, be self-centred, out of focus with what is happening around them, temperamental, spoiled and impatient. But generally, babies of the family are likeable, fun to be around, easy to talk to, work well with others, and are caring people. They often appear relaxed, wanting to help others, genuine and trustworthy with no hidden agenda. They often have an “I’ll show you” attitude, and can be high achievers, too. In her book, Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help Their Children Meet the Challenges of Birth Order, Meri Wallace, M.S.W., C.S.W., a child and family therapist and founder/director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development in Brooklyn, points out that there are certain distinct advantages to each child's position in the family. The first-born gets to stay up latest, the middle child has an older sibling to rely on and a younger sibling to look up to her, and the youngest gets to be the baby. Having a sibling can be a very pleasurable and positive experience for children, allowing them to learn how to love a peer, how to share, and how to empathize with others. However, she adds, children also experience some difficult emotional challenges that are related to their birth order position — such as being "dethroned" by a new baby, feeling incompetent in comparison to a big brother or sister, or learning to get their basic emotional and physical needs met while sharing the parents with siblings who have needs of their own. The firstborn child basks in her parents undivided love and attention and often benefits emotionally and intellectually from this experience, emerging with a sense of security and self-confidence, says Wallace. Less positive aspects of being the oldest child, however, include feelings of jealousy, anger and/or loss when forced to share the limelight with an adorable, attention-grabbing younger sibling. Inexperienced, anxious parents may also have very high expectations for their first-born. Parents may subconsciously place too much pressure on their first born child to succeed, and may also give double messages, praising him to the sky while also critiquing him. "This concurrent idealization and devaluation can ultimately undermine the child's confidence in himself and undo his chances for success," Wallace adds. The second born child benefits from calmer, more relaxed parents and enjoys the special attention he gets as the newer member of the family, she notes, adding that a middle child gains from some of the positives of being both a younger and an older sibling. Single children have the benefit of having their parents’ undivided attention, but may face special challenges such as loneliness, less experience in relating to peers, having an adult jump in quickly to solve his problems, or a lack of appropriate limits. The baby of the family has a special place in the family, with lots of attention from the older siblings and relaxed, experienced parents who now know that children are not as fragile as they first appear to be. However, the youngest child may also be babied too much, or, surrounded by older siblings, may feel less capable or competent. The youngest child may sometimes feel left out, and may be an easy target for the older ones’ frustration. Wallace suggests that, especially with first-borns, it is important for parents to give unconditional love, avoid critical comments, convey a positive attitude about learning, and explain why he/she may be pressured to excel more than other siblings. The second born child, who may suffer from feelings of inadequacy, needs emotional support and validation, reassurance that she/he is loveable, praise for strengths and abilities, and the opportunity to be involved in activities which allow these special talents and interests to be nurtured. Second-borns should be encouraged to assert themselves and to develop problem-solving skills. Third born personality types, says Isaacson, are full of interesting twists and turns — feeling vulnerable (due to the propensity of the second-born to use all sorts of tricks to make their younger sibling feel bad), sometimes fearful yet also full of humor, emotional strength and creativity, needing parents who can help them to get along in a world in which others appear overpowering. And fourth-borns? Even though they may benefit from some of the aspects of being the youngest, Isaacson says this position is the toughest one. With these children, she says, the theme song is often, "Life Isn't Easy, You Have To Try Hard".

Using Birth Order Awareness Toward More Positive Parenting Are you a first-born, the only female in a family of males, or the baby who was always catered to? Meri Wallace believes that parents’ birth order experiences have a strong impact on the way we feel about ourselves and how we relate to our own children. For example, she says, the first-born parent might have a tendency to identify more with his/her own first-born child, or might treat their child who is born in a different birth position from them similarly to how they treated, or were treated, by their siblings. A strong parental identification may have a very positive effect, allowing the parent to be sensitive to that child's needs, but can also bring up unresolved issues from the parent’s own past that will get in the way. Because "self-analysis is the key", Wallace encourages parents to try to identify their own strong emotions, to connect them to their past experiences, and to discuss their own childhoods with their parents and siblings to gain a better understanding of their own role in their family of origin. We all know that parenthood — whether our family consists of one child, three children, seven children or triplets, and a set of twins on the way — is a challenging job requiring huge amounts of compassion and creativity. (Nerves of steel don't hurt, either!) Understanding the impact of the birth order effect provides us with another tool that can assist us in achieving our heartfelt goal of raising happy, healthy and well-adjusted children. Children are still very individual, and shouldn’t be put into boxes. Labeling your youngest child as ‘the clown’ may be seriously detrimental to their well-being, just as if you were to label your eldest child ‘the high achiever of the family’, causing them undue pressure. Just love your child for being who they are. But do be aware of the problems associated with the birth order in a family. Below are some ways to help if you feel your children may be adversely affected:

First Born Children —Help your child to relax, and make sure they know they don’t always have to win. —Lower your own expectations of them. —Let them be playful, and make sure they’re not always taking the ‘responsible child’ role. —Don’t overload them with chores (especially looking after the younger children), just because they are the biggest. —Admit your own mistakes, so they can learn to admit theirs. —Openly love and approve of your child just because they live. —Spend time alone with them, and encourage talking about fears and concerns they may have.

Only Children —Encourage independence, and don’t over-mother them. —Let them spend time with their friends, and invite their friends over in return to encourage sharing. —Don’t spoil them with too many material items just because you are able to. —Allow them to be different from you. —Encourage their playfulness, and let them know it’s OK to make mistakes and have fun sometimes.

Middle Born Children —Treat them with lots of love, care and respect. —Encourage their efforts, and try not to compare them to their siblings. —Give them responsibilities too. —Ask about opinions and feelings. Don’t assume they are OK, just because they are quiet and not complaining. —Take plenty of photos of them on their own. —Single them out for special attention regularly. —Be careful with introductions. For your first-born you might say, “This is Jamie, our eldest”, and for the youngest you might say, “This is Johnny, our youngest.” Make sure you introduce your middle child with as much respect and care, not just “This is Joey.” —Keep a positive attitude. It can be said that a middle child has the best spot in the family —someone to look up to, and someone to be looked up to. —In the practical sense, ensure they have plenty of new toys and clothes, and not always hand-me-downs. Youngest Born Children —Don’t let your youngest child use complaining or telling tales to gain your attention. —Try to avoid the family treating them as a mascot. —Let them help with decision-making. —Give them some age-appropriate responsibilities too. —Encourage independence and being thoughtful. —Praise their milestones with as much enthusiasm as with your first child. —Encourage their intellectual development. —Don’t assume they are too young to help. —Take them seriously.

Born to be wild? Seeking early consultation for behavior problems is key

By Denise Mann

Your son is the sandbox bully, constantly taking toys away from other kids when he’s not kicking sand in their faces. He gets easily frustrated when he does not get what he wants and when you try to tell him to calm down, he becomes hypersensitive and inconsolable. Instead of growing out of it, he only seems to be getting worse!

You may be thinking “uh-oh” if this sounds like your child, but take a deep breath because although these may be red flags to future behavioral problems, helping children to better express themselves can nip potential problems in the bud. About 10 percent of children are born with a set of “challenging traits”, meaning that they are easily frustrated, very sensitive, emotionally intense and have difficulty coping with change, according to Helen Neville, R.N., director of the Inborn Temperament program at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif. And in some, these traits will grow into conduct disorder, a complex mix of behavioral and emotional problems. What’s more, a percentage of children with a more severe form of the disorder may be reclassified after age 18 as having antisocial personality disorder (APD), a diagnosis common to those charged with violent crimes.

So what’s a parent to do?

If your child exhibits some of these challenging traits, try to give him or her tools they will need to better cope as they age. For instance, if your child has difficulty with change, “try to get him or her to talk about why a new thing is so troublesome. If they become easily frustrated, remove them from the situation and try to calm them,” says Ruth Karush, M.D., a child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. “Certain traits can be ameliorated by providing your child with the words and tools needed to better express themselves,” she says.

Age matters How a parent interprets a child’s action should depend on the age of a child, Dr. Karush believes. “If a toddler goes into sandbox and takes a toy away from another child, it means that they do not know anything about sharing and need to learn that from their parents,” she explains. “Learning social skills takes time, so parents have to be patient and not expect a child will be well-behaved the minute they meet up with new children. . . but once you get 5-years-olds who are still having trouble sharing, it may be time to seek help.” If you see that your child is having trouble in the social arena with other kids or in the school setting, that’s a red flag that it may be time to seek professional advice, Dr. Karush says. Successful programs have also been set up to give elementary school students the tools to avoid violent behavior. One recent study of 11,000 New York City students who were trained in the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP), teaching how to resolve conflict without throwing punches, showed promising results. Initiated in 1985, RCCP supports school staff, parents, families, and the community in teaching young people conflict resolution skills, promoting intercultural understanding, and providing models for positive ways of dealing with conflict and differences. In a recent study, Columbia University researchers found that children who received more than 20 program lessons in a year were less likely to be aggressive and more likely to settle disputes peacefully, compared with children who received four or fewer lessons. The study appeared in the March 2003 journal, Developmental Psychology.

Nature vs. nurture “There are a group of youngsters who may be more prone constitutionally and biologically to behavior problems, while other kids, because of tumultuous life and home experiences, may have behavior problems. And other kids may be affected by both,” says Cynthia Pfeffer, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and White Plains. Psychologists at the University of Southern California recently reported that men with APD had 11 percent less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex of their brains, when compared with men without the disorder. The study, which appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry, is the first to suggest that people may be born with this type of brain damage. Another study by a team out of the University of Chicago found that boys between the ages of 7-12 who had been sent to psychiatrists because of bad behavior had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than did boys without behavioral problems. This report also appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry. “If a parent is having questions about their child, whether at the first sign or after repeated concerns arise, they should see someone to ask questions,” Dr. Pfeffer says. “Some things may be identified and treated early, and other times a skilled professional might say ‘watch and wait.’” The most important thing, she says, is that if a parent is concerned about the behavior of a child, they should seek a consultation with a pediatrician, school counselor or a child/adolescent psychiatrist who is well-trained and can determine whether a child has a specific disorder such as conduct disorder. “The consultation can lead to thoughts of treatment approaches or intervention as well as clarify for patients what their child is doing,” she says. Conduct disorder may be treated by therapy and/or medication. Dr. Karush says if a child has a mental illness or an illness that can be diagnosed, they should get help as soon as possible so development can get back on track and they are not out of sync with other kids. “Untreated mental or emotional illness will cause behavior problems, difficulties in school and difficulty with authority figures,” she says. “It could snowball.”


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