If brothers and sisters are raised by the same parents, how do they end up so different? How is it that one sibling grows up to be successful academically and professionally but with few friends, while another becomes the athlete with loads of friends? To the degree that one of the siblings is a responsible person, another will be attention-seeking or rebellious. One follows the ways of the parents and another looks outside the family for support. The strategies we learn in childhood for dealing with our parents and siblings has a lasting influence on our behavior, often in ways we barely recognize.

The world of the first-born child differs markedly from that of the second born, and if a third comes along, he or she will carve out territory within the family system that differs from the first two. This is not to say that these patterns are carved in stone – there are always exceptions to the rules. For example, if the first two children are born close together and the third child comes along much later, the last-born may have characteristics resembling the first-born. The gender of the children and physical differences can also make for deviations from the general patterns, as can the birth order of the parents and the nature of the relationship between the parents. And, of course, two families who come together through the remarriage of the parents (the blended family) can create all sorts of interesting combinations. Researchers have been interested in birth order for nearly a century now, but learned only within the past few decades about the influence of birth order on our behavior and the nature of relationships with our partners.

Consider two parents, possibly newly married, who have their first child. Determined to be the best parents in the world, they dote on the child, give the child an abundance of attention, and try to show just how responsible they are. They want to be perfect parents and they want the child to be perfect – and it’s a lesson the child learns well. First-borns often grow up with perfectionistic tendencies, and they strive for approval and success in the adult world. The second child usually doesn’t get nearly the attention received by the older sibling, and, deviating from the pattern already established by the first born, this second child will often go outside of the family constellation as they grow up. The support of their friends becomes more important than the approval of the parents. By the time the last born child comes along, the parents have loosened up considerably in their child-rearing practices and tend to indulge this child – so the baby in the family, having learned of his or her special status, may grow up to be attention seeking, perhaps manipulative, people-oriented, and a charmer.

Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.