“I’m losing my mind just a little
So why don’t you just meet me in the middle?” Maren Morris, “The Middle”
We’re not sure if Maren Morris is a middle child or not, but for middle children everywhere just hearing the word “middle” can cause you to shudder. You probably heard the hit song “The Middle” more often than a middle child heard themselves called by their proper names during the course of their entire childhood. Being called by their sibling’s name. Being the “forgotten” child. Becoming the de facto “negotiator” in the family. Hand me down jeans and tag-along hobbies. The stereotypes of “middle child syndrome” are as well-known and accurate, and often inaccurate, as any other stereotype.
Nowhere else in pop-culture has the middle child stereotype been more grossly overstated and exaggerated than in Jan Brady, the classic middle child from the 70’s hit sitcom The Brady Bunch. Not only was Jan stuck in-between her younger sister Cindy and older sister Marcia, but she was also placed in a fantastical and unique fictional family dynamic; dead father, blended family featuring another trio of siblings, unrealistic expectations to live up to the popularity and success of her older sister…the famous expression of her exacerbation “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is seared into our collective consciousness. That feeling of not being able to live up to her sister and feeling trapped and forgotten in the middle certainly doesn’t have to be the destiny of any middle child. Let’s break some of these stereotypes by focusing on your middle child’s strengths.
It just takes some time,
little girl your in the middle of the ride,
everything, everything will be just fine.
Everything, everything will be all right.” Jimmy Eat World, “The Middle”
Another hit song called “The Middle”, this one by Jimmy Eat World, encourages everyone to be themselves and to be their best. Whether we’re talking about your first child, middle child, or sixth child, all of your children have their own unique strengths. One way to make sure all of your children feel special is to take the VIA Survey of Character strengths (link) and share everyone’s top strengths. This will show all of your children, that they are unique, special and have different strengths that set them apart.
Three sibling dynamics are tough. Try to avoid two-person centric tasks and activities. Those types of situations are likely to make one child feel left out. It can be hard to have three peers together because typically two feel more unity than the one. It’s a ‘numbers game’ and three is one of the most difficult to manage. It’s the same with friendships. Remember the last time your kid had more than one friend over for a sleepover? How quickly did that end in tears?
Active listening is important with all of your children, being present and in the moment when you are having a conversation lets them know you are truly engaged and listening to them, but it can be critically important to your middle child, especially if they are already vulnerable to feeling left out or forgotten. Put your phone down, get comfortable, be engaged and listen to what your child is saying.
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle With You”
The middle child often feels “on their own” because a big family is a busy family. Their older sibling probably already has activities that they are actively involved in and the younger sibling may require more work and attention. This can cause a feeling of isolation for the middle child. They feel “stuck” between their older sister’s constant soccer practices and their younger brother’s constant tantrums. This may cause them to desire more attention and even act out to obtain it. Remember their strengths and point them out. “Thank you for using your strength of self-regulation sitting quietly and doing your homework during your sister’s game. I know it was a long game, she appreciates your support!” or “Thank you for using your humor to help calm your brother down. I know he can be a handful sometimes, but he loves when you make him laugh.” Pointing out their strengths and including them in situations reminds them that they are an important part of the family.
Set aside time for your children to play together. Find something they all like or have them take turns choosing a board game, or other fun activity to do together. On a rainy day, encourage them to practice some mindfulness by doing some yoga or even just a quick breathing exercise. Your smartphone or smartwatch may have something to guide them through this. (Added benefit you get some peace and quiet, if only for a few minutes) And, if they choose a game that involves more than three players, jump in and play with them!
“I think I’m a little bit caught in the middle
Gotta keep going or they’ll call me a quitter” Paramore, “Caught in the Middle”
It is important that your middle child does not feel unnecessary pressure to live up to inflated expectations. One child may excel at sports, while another succeeds in the classroom. Help them find what they are good at and encourage them to be their best. They may even reject what their older siblings are into. And that’s fine. Encourage them to try different things, and they will find what suits them.
Parenting a middle child may be more difficult or even easier than parenting your first or your last, but in reality, the same principles apply. Love them. Focus on their strengths. And be intentional, fully present, and completely engaged with them.