The Fault in ‘Middle Child Syndrome’


Crystal Bates

The Fault in ‘Middle Child Syndrome’

I grew up as the middle child in a family of five, so I certainly displayed some characteristics of what society has dubbed ‘Middle Child Syndrome’. Studies tell us that birth order not only affects, but in a way determines personality. Looking back on TV shows and movies from childhood, many personality traits are repeated over and over again. One of the things commonly seen are sibling tropes, where the characters’ personality if based off of what order they are born in. ‘Middle Child Syndrome’ is a personality trait that has been overemphasized in media, attaching a negative connotation to certain children just because of birth order.

Perhaps one of the most important examples of the portrayal of middle children in popular media is in The Brady Bunch. Jan Brady is seen as the poster child of ‘Middle Child Syndrome’, particularly in the episode titled “Her Sister’s Shadow” ( In a spectacular portrayal of a child stuck in the middle of her sisters, Jan Brady has feelings of inadequacy and invisibility while constantly being compared to her perfect older sister.Untitled

Marcia Brady is the oldest daughter, and so has a tendency of overshadow her younger sister by default. Jan’s feelings are normal for a younger sister, but her attitude about it is portrayed in a way that comes off as annoying and whiny. Jan ultimately finds something to make herself stand out, but many children stuck in the middle of their siblings never do. Instead, they learn to be the peacemaker of the family, and often learn to be too lenient and cooperative when it comes to compromise. They are used to not getting their way, so middle children hardly grow up learning to expect more of themselves.

In shows like 8 Simple Rules and Modern Family, the middle child is a smart, misunderstood girl who wants to be nothing like her boy-crazy, perfect older sister. Kerry Hennessy is a smart, slightly odd artist in 8 Simple Rules, while Alex Dunphy is a scary smart, pessimistic teenager in Modern Family. Both girls feel alienated from the rest of their siblings, and the viewer gets the impression that they cause turmoil in their families. In Modern Family, there is an episode titled, ‘The Long Honeymoon’, where the Dunphys are having a relaxing, perfect summer while Alex is at summer camp. When Alex comes home unexpectedly early, the family is instantly fighting and in horrible moods. This episode is certainly funny, and the way that the siblings fight and interact is pretty close to real siblings, but the way that Alex’s role in the family is portrayed is discouraging. The family dynamic takes a bad turn when the middle child is present. This episode really emphasizes the fact that Alex is grossly misunderstood and almost unliked by her family. This dynamic makes for amusing TV, but I have to wonder about what kind of message an episode like this sends middle children. Alex Dunphy and Kerry Hennessy have very similar characteristics, and display emotions and traits commonly found in middle children in psychological studies of birth order. These traits are emphasized and blown out of proportion for media, causing the girls to be comedic relief, and sometimes the least liked person in the family.

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Incidentally, the middle sibling in TV shows sometimes embodies traits that aren’t necessarily negative, but instead unrealistic. 8 Simple Rules and Modern Family both depict girls who are unfeasibly smarter than the rest of their family. They have higher then normal IQs, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is an impossible standard for middle children to live up to. If the only redeeming quality about a middle child on a TV show is being extremely smart, how do real children measure up? They don’t. This characteristic does not give middle children a bad name in media it definitely does in real life. In reality, if a middle child does not have something to make them stand out, then they are simply seen as an ordinary child who tends to be overlooked more often than not.

In my own family, I was the quiet kid, the one who didn’t cause any trouble. I would not have been able to relate to the middle children in these TV shows, besides the feelings of being invisible or misunderstood. I was always more sensitive and empathetic than my siblings, and that made me stick out in my family. The problem was that I let myself disappear in my own older sister’s shadow, and there was no one for me to mold myself after. Being the middle child is a hard burden, but it is not always a negative experience. I believe that ‘Middle Child Syndrome’ has become so popular because mainstream media has drawn attention to the negative aspects of it, instead of trying to popularize the idea that being born in the middle can be a positive.

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Personality tests by birth order are common in Individual Psychology, and certain traits are found frequently when studying middle-borns. Middle born children display feelings of rejection, inadequacy, and often times feel they are not worthy of their family’s attention or esteem. This is obviously problematic, especially when studies show that middle born children most influence the family atmosphere due personalities that involve somewhat negative traits. We see these issues in most television shows, and especially in the Brady Bunch, Modern Family, and 8 Simple Rules. Jan, Kerry, and Alex definitely feel unwanted, inadequate, and all together separate from the rest of their siblings.

This seems like a problem without a solution, but Individual Psychology operates under mostly old personality testing, which can be inconclusive. The media has taken these stereotypical personalities and overdone them, while they could be changing them. Some experts suggest that being the middle child actually gives people an advantage in their adult life. Middle born children can become great negotiators and are typically extremely empathetic, which can lead to more success. Only, the media does not portray characters this way. There could be a realistic middle child with a more positive image, but instead television shows and movies tend to stick with the archaic depiction of the unloved middle child. The problem isn’t the child or the family so much as it is the idea of ‘Middle Child Syndrome.’ If middle born children are not expected to act a certain way, and the media displays a middle child that is successful and different from all the rest, then that could become the trend. But instead, children are stuck with images of unloved, unrealistic, negative portrayals of themselves on TV shows.

‘Middle Child Syndrome’ is not the only thing the media gets wrong, but it is definitely an important one. In a world where so many people’s lives revolve around the Internet and television, it’s important that mass media depicts people’s roles in their families and in society accurately. People need to see accurate, or at least positive images of themselves in media in order to want to have those traits in themselves. If people accept this image negative image of the middle child for themselves or their own children, then that’s all they will aspire to be.


Learning Experiences:

Two weeks of Popular Culture stood out to me when thinking of learning experiences that impacted me this term. The first was probably week 1 and 2, when the class was first exploring identities and examining them in media. It was interesting to see how and where other people could see their identities portrayed in mass media, and eye opening to realize how much of our identities were swept under the rug. I remember writing about my family, and how I could not see us portrayed in the media anywhere, and that was a weird feeling. Everything is in the media, so to realize that such a big part of who I was was not in the media around me was a little sad, but also kind of freeing. We aren’t like the stereotypes, and I kind of like that. “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad” article that we read that week also really struck a cord with me. My father is a single dad, so he had to do it all, and the thought that the media basically was telling him and other fathers out there that they could not be that successful dad was hard to accept, because I know otherwise. The article is also an eye opener in terms of the fact that it is hard to be someone who is not represented in popular culture. The writer concludes that when someone cannot see their image reflected in the media, it is essentially like they do not exist. It’s sad to me that the media determines so much of who we allow ourselves to be.

The other week was the week we talked about advertising. That was a really cool discussion for me, because my sister is in advertising and it was interesting to get her opinions on things and discuss them in the class. It was enlightening to see how other classmates viewed things such as ads that were supposed to be empowering, or ads that played off of stereotypes. There were things in the ads that people shared that I hadn’t thought of or realized before, which was an eye opener for me. People view and interpret ads in such different ways, and sometimes it’s hard to take into consideration that things that are funny to you are hurtful to other people, and sometimes we take meaning and empowerment from ads that other people just see as selling a product.

Writing the Big Picture blog post was also an important moment for me, because it really allowed me to see ideas that I never knew I had before. Writing about how people can become so much more than the media tells us we can be struck a nerve with me. I truly believe this, and I did not notice how invisible I let myself become when I was a kid just because I was a middle child and that’s what I was expected to do. I see myself going back to those habits sometimes, and I try to actively pull myself out, and in fact I will continue to do so. Writing about ‘Middle Child Syndrome’ and its portrayal in the media has motivated me to allow myself to be someone the media does not show.



Works Cited


“Her Sister’s Shadow.” The Brady Bunch. ABC. Paramount Television, Los Angeles. 19 Nov. 1971. Television.

“The Long Honeymoon.” Modern Family. ABC. Paramount Television, Los Angeles. 24 Sep. 2014. Television.

Stewart, Alan E., Elizabeth E. Stewart, and Linda F. Campbell. “The Relationship of Psychological Birth Order to the Family Atmosphere and to Personality.” Journal of Individual Psychology 57.4 (2001): 363-88. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2015.

Stewart, Alan E. “Issues in Birth Order Research Methodology: Perspectives from Individual Psychology.” Journal of Individual Psychology 68.1 (2012): 75-106. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2015.

Eckstein, Daniel, Kristen J. Aycock, Phil Ginsburg, Mark A. Sperber, John McDonald, Richard Watts, and Victor Van Wiesner. “A Review of 200 Birth-Order Studies: Lifestyle Characteristics.” Journal of Individual Psychology 66.4 (2010): 408-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 July 2015.



5 thoughts on “The Fault in ‘Middle Child Syndrome’

  1. Crystal,

    Thank you for your enlightening blog. I am not a middle child, so I can’t relate that well, but I was still fascinated to hear what it is like to be a middle child. I only have one older sister, my fiance is an only child, and my parents were not middle children either. The only experience I have with middle children is my daughter who is both the middle child and the only girl – an older and younger brother and all male cousins. Watching her grow up and take on some of these roles is a little concerning. At the age of nine, I have already seen her display peace-maker tendencies and watched her let her own wishes go in order to appease the rest of us. She also seems insecure at times and needs extra attention, but it is hard as a parent to know when that is something like middle child syndrome or something else going on. On the other hand, she has carved out a unique niche of her own as the girl in the family, the artist, and fiercely independent. You blog helps me to reflect on all of her personality traits to see how my ignorance about the experience of being the middle child so I can consider how to better respond to some of her inevitable needs as one herself. I’m glad to see that you seem to have embraced the identity well!
    Thank you for your perspective,

  2. Crystal, I really appreciate your post. Being the baby of the family myself, it’s really interesting to hear the perspective of a middle child and to hear how they are misrepresented in mainstream media. The negative misrepresentations over decades of television and film does not surprise me, but what does surprise me is how the “positive” representations of smarter than average kids are just as bad. There really needs to be something in the media that accurately depicts middle children!

    Thank you for enlightening me with your post!

  3. Crystal-
    Your essay was so interesting to read! I’m also from a family of five kids, but instead of being number 3 like you, i’m the 4th, and get treated more like the baby. Reading this kind of gave me a better perspective on how my older brother might feel. I really liked the part about Modern Family and 8 Simple Rules, and how they both portray the middle sibling as smart and misunderstood and also the least liked member of the family and the main source of conflict. I know in my family the middle child, my older brother, definitely has the last two traits but it has nothing to do with birth order or with being smart and misunderstood. It’s interesting how middle children are so commonly portrayed in such a uniform way, and while it’s not necessarily always negative, it still perpetuates tropes that are hard for any child to live up to.

    I wonder if in your research you found an example of a middle child that was portrayed in a generally positive way? Probably not, but it would be interesting to know if that existed.

  4. Crystal,

    I read something once that correlated the birth order personality types to the classical greek temperaments, and then to dog breeds. The middle child corresponded to the phlegmatic temperament, and the Irish Setter. btw, the last born was the sanguine temperament, and the Yorky; the first born was the choleric temperament and the Great Dane; and the only child was the melancholy temperament and the Standard Poodle. Perhaps those images make it worse for you, I don’t know.
    I am an only child (see Noel’s comment), but was also given up for adoption at the age of 3, so I think I have some of the “overlooked” traits of a middle child, though mixed with the perfectionism that only children seem to manifest. I like that you recognized a certain freedom in NOT seeing yourself represented in media, I now my background has given me a great deal of freedom in how I think about family (since I don’t derive much emotional support from my own), wo perhaps being overlooked as the middle child means you can dream undisturbed, and quietly plot your revenge…

  5. Hey Crystal!
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I am not a middle child, otherwise I might have noticed this pattern of portrayal in popular culture. But since you have pointed it out, it’s very common! I find this really interesting because I was always lead to believe that ‘middle child syndrome’ was something very different. Instead of the ‘Alex’ from Modern Family, I always thought it referred to general craziness. I knew a few middle childs growing up that were moody and anxious. Perhaps that is just me though.. Because this portrayal seems much more relevant! While I could never see into your brain and see the feeling of invisibility and such, I think your the coolest middle child ever!

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