The agony of the middle child


by Susan Prosser on August 25, 2009

Dear Susan,

We have 3 children aged eight, five and two and we are finding it all overwhelming especially with our five-year-old son.  He is fine in school but he causes so much trouble at home that we don’t know what to do with him anymore.  We have tried talking with him, giving him rewards when he is good, taking privileges away, time outs and anything else we can think of at the time.  He just gets worse. What can we do to make this better?



Dear Jo,

You raise issues that every family struggles with. 

First of all, rest reassured that since your son, let’s call him Sean, is able to manage himself at school that he is developing skills and coping mechanisms that are serving him well.  His misbehavior at home indicates that he may be feeling a little insecure about himself within his family.  This is no fault of yours.  Without our knowing, our children develop a view of themselves and the world from their own observations and deductions.

Birth order and its effects on development are important to understand.  As a middle child, Sean is trying to find his way and feel that he is a valued member of this family.  Middle kids often feel like they are displaced and out of sync with their siblings (or sometimes, they feel like the best part of the sandwich!  – it is all perception).  From day one we are all trying to find a way to belong and to be unique and valued.  Siblings and the position they hold with their siblings have much to do with how the children see themselves  If Sean interprets that his sibs are more valued because they are well-behaved, then he might decide to misbehave in order to find his own unique place in the family.

It is possible that Sean feels like the odd man out and therefore is having trouble feeling good about himself.  When we don’t feel secure, we misbehave.

I could write volumes about reward and punishment.   Suffice it to say that they do not work, as you have discovered. Think about it, if you, as an adult, are misbehaving and another adult punishes you what is likely to happen?  Most of us avoid that adult, fight back or become extremely frustrated.  Usually our behavior gets worse as a result of those feelings.  Punishment does not change behavior, it does not teach a child how to behave and it hurts the relationship between parent and child.  Rewards teach a child to behave in order to get the reward rather than to behave as a result of feeling good about himself and others.

So, as Sean’s parent, it is your job to guide him and teach him how to manage life and to find a place in the family that works. 

Start spending one-on-one time with Sean on a regular basis,

  •      Catch Sean behaving in a loving, co-operative way and help him recognize how good it feels,
  •      Find things that Sean is good at and give him tasks that require him to use those skills and then make sure he realizes that his contributions have made a big difference in the family,
  •      Help forge Sean’s relationship with each of his siblings separately.  Help him to recognize that he is valued by each of them.  
  •      When Sean acts out and is inappropriate, refrain from shaming him with your anger or recriminations.  You can be firm and let him know that his behavior is not acceptable without shaming him.

It is so important for us as parents to see the world from our child’s perspective.  Kids are just trying to belong and they want to know that we hold them in high esteem.  The way they figure this out often gets them the opposite results and then they feel like they are bad or something is wrong with them.  Now is a great time to correct some of those notions.