Our birth order affects the way we behave

Get to grips with family relationships

A sibling is a fancy name for a brother or a sister. You grow up with your siblings and this leads to basic conflicts that influence the way you relate to people in general. Basic kiddie disputes cause a lot of unnecessary strife that should be nipped in the bud. As adults it can get ugly and sibling hatred may brew and fester for many decades.

Why do you ignore me?Credit: Sue Visser

What do we mean by sibling rivalry?

The dictionary gives a pretty harsh description of the term:" intense competition among siblings for recognition and attention from their parents. Sibling rivalry normally begins when a baby is introduced to a family and the older sibling fears the baby will replace him or her. The older child may become extremely jealous and display aggressive behaviour toward the baby."

In other words, the firstborn feels a threat coming on and has to make sure that the newcomer is not going to kick him or her out of the nest. This is a primal, instinctive urge that is hardwired into the offspring of humans as well as animals. We all know what the "runt" of the litter means. Nobody wants to be a runt! Sibling rivalry begins as a fight for food and motherly attention and develops into a fight for the survival and augmentation of the human ego at the cost of just about anything.

Our primal urge to fight and compete may be instinctive but unlike animals, we humans can make conscious choices. We also judge and compare ourselves with others and this is where we can get into trouble later when we have been weaned and no longer walk around in diapers. Two adult siblings can grow up together and even enjoy their childhood as good companions as we know. But they still have an instinctive urge to be a top dog or cool cat in their parent's eyes.

Seeking attentionCredit: Sue Visser

The different categories of sibling rivalry and what they imply

As mammals we and other animals like dogs and cats suckle our young. The newborn babies are totally dependent on the mother for her milk that ensures their very survival. Without it they will die, so there is a scramble to plug-in as soon as they can for a good feed. If the siblings all arrive at the same time then ideally each of them can latch on to a nipple or teat and feed simultaneously. But if mom is short of teats, some of them will have to skip the meal. When this happens repeatedly to one of the siblings they are not adequately nourished and become weaker. They get pushed aside and often grow into a smaller cat or dog. We call them runts!

Baby brothersCredit: Sue Visser

But humans are also affected by their brothers and sisters and the competition is stiff. We have a number of competing situations to consider and children will be affected by the way their parents balance out the equation. You will identify with one of these scenarios:

  • The elder child who gets a younger brother or sister
  • The younger child with an elder brother or sister
  • The eldest child with a number of brothers and/or sisters
  • The third child
  • The youngest child with a number of older brothers and/or sisters
  • The only child
  • Twins - a simultaneous arrival
  • Triplets or more than three siblings at the same time

Birth order considerations were introduced to psychotherapy by Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler ( 1870 - 1937 ) was a Viennese psychotherapist and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. As a second child of seven he seemed to adopt the "poor me" strategy to secure his share of parental concern. As an infant he suffered from rickets (soft bones - a lack of vitamin D) and was unable to walk until the age of four. He nearly died of pneumonia but grew up determined to become a physician. He wrote many books and took a great interest in psychology. Birth order was an important factor he introduced into his system of treatment. He strived to gain more insight into the causative factors that led to a low self-image and unlike Freud who had a mother fixation, he based his treatment on birth order, .

Basically he classified the eldest of the brood as being originally the most pampered one who feels threatened by the gush of attention the next child receives. A younger child too, gets a lot more help from older brothers and sisters who have grown up and already developed a friendship - almost in self-defence for solidarity. It's them, the parents and the baby. Each child in turn needs to snatch their own share of acknowledgement from the parents and this results in sibling rivalry.

Adler, Freud and Jung are considered to be the three founders of modern psychology - the investigation of unconscious and psychodynamics. They were pioneers of investigating how the mental images we nurture, even from an early age have a serious impact on our self-esteem in later life. Adler in particular was very concerned with birth order and no wonder - he was one of seven children! But he fought for equality between male and female and considered them to be complementary, rather than competitive factors. So too in our families neither one is superior. But in practice this is not the case - brother versus sister battles are the fiercest. Adults take sides because the world embraces issues of feminism versus chauvinism. But God said that it was not good that Adam should be alone, so Eve was given to him as a companion. Why fight about it?

Seeing eye to eye

Growing up and developing strategies to get parental acknowledgement

According to the dictionary: "As the children grow, sibling rivalry can lead to extremely competitive or aggressive behaviour, which may become generalized to other life experiences (e.g., career)." This is serious and the subtle or not so subtle conflicts need to be recognised and put into perspective. The early days of childhood relationships within a family can imprint in a very negative way and turn ugly.

So ugly, in fact that in the Bible we read that: "Cain slayed Abel, his brother." This was done in a fit of jealousy because God Almighty favoured the dude who slayed an animal and made a barbecue and his brother only grew vegetables. (I know what you are thinking - not appropriate behaviour for a bunny hugging vegetarian.) But the two brothers were competing against each other - unfairly butting heads, you could say.

Islam versus Judaism. A bloody war rages between the offspring of Abrahan's two sons - Isaac and Ishamil. Both sides are happy to kill in the name of their religion, yet they serve the same God? Here two brothers are set up with a massive chip on each shoulder because they each have a different mother. It seems that not all mothers are created equal - so kill your siblings!

Brute force - louder, harder and making overt demands

We know what it feels like when one child gets praised and the other is ignored. But how about the one sibling getting more attention by being louder, crying more and being a nuisance? Here the opposite prevails - attention is given to shut the one sibling up at the cost of ignoring the more patient and yielding of the two. A busy mother may not be aware of the impact this can make on an impressionable psyche at the time. She tries to keep peace in her home and comfort the child that seems to need emergency treatment.

Raise your voiceCredit: Sue Visser

Oops! Soon the good, quiet child realises that being nice does not equal getting Mom's attention and so this leads to a devious relay being established as an attention-getting mechanism - shriek the loudest, wriggle the hardest, choke, convulse and scare the hell out of your parents to get a hug. I remember a family where three brothers used these techniques to drive their Mom loopy. The doctor's bills were huge and each one got their moment of glory with a line up of medicines as their trophies. They were also good at falling, breaking limbs, bashing each other and so on. All because nobody had reassured them that all three of them would be fed, changed, hugged and played with. Nobody loses out, but it is a case of taking turns. This is very difficult to tell a baby who can only howl and squirm.

The "poor me" scenario - get Mom worried about ME

Whoever gets Mom flustered first, gets the reward. Even in a tender little mind, the body soon learns to manifest certain ailments as attention snatching devices. This is what I did! I remember so well, the coughing spells that could wake up my mother in the middle of the night. She would creep up to my bedside in the dark and I could feel the buzz of concern. I had caused it! Little me, the fourth child. As the youngest of four the competition was very steep. It cost me the optimal use of my lungs for over 5 decades, but a wheezy chest was a winner! Off to the doctor. Aah - the attention, the worried faces around me.

I could make myself really hot (fake a fever) and produce wheezing and croaking noises. I could appear to get weak and seem to fade away. I could have my fevered brow caressed by cool fingers and perform for the stethoscope when Doctor made the house call. Then came the medicine. My medicine - for me not my brother or two elder sisters. I am sure you can remember your own "poor me" scenarios. Perhaps that is why I became a health researcher! I can now hunt out hypochondria and pseudo illnesses because I know the tricks of old. The placebo effect often produces more healing from the man in the white jacket than the drug he administers.

Smouldering resentmentCredit: Sue Visser

Some people get sick because they lack companionship, attention and reassurance. This can often link back to sibling rivalry - a way to secure acknowledgement of some kind. Many adults visit a doctor when they feel lonely and insecure. The complaint in question is not as important as the fabricated opportunity to sit down and have somebody listen to you. You can go on about what is bothering you albeit in relation to a sore throat or a lump in the breast. The diagnosis alone can take the disease to a new level and it can manifest. That is the scary scenario - what I call a pro-cancerous mindset. Some people even get a nasty wasting illness to wallow in the attention that they may have missed out on as the "runt" or sibling that was ousted by rivalry.

 Being smart, cute, clever and getting applause from strangers

A brilliant way for young babies to shine out and get noticed is to be cute. Babies who gurgle, grin and make eye contact with strangers are worshipped and get the most praise. This is a positive mechanism and babies are made to look cute with large innocent appealing eyes so that older humans or animals find them irresistible and want to cuddle and care for them. Once again, a survival technique - one that may not work at home but it scores big time with strangers. Babies also learn to do clever little things and begin to say words or laugh or make cute gestures for applause.

If a number of babies share the same space they can all be appreciated, acknowledged and adored simultaneously. But this babyhood bliss is often short-lived. Soon one of them will get loud and obnoxious for no reason at all it seems. They override the placid adoration phase and take over with urgent demands. When a baby is truly happy and relaxed, hunger or a wet bum is not an issue, I have noticed. When the demand for attention has been met with the cuddly cute act babies get into a good space because they don't instinctively detect any threats.


Let's get practical and set up a working protocol

We need to get practical and manage our time as parents so that each child has equal access to quality time. Having a one on one time to discuss their personal issues is imperative. If each child knows that there is a guaranteed fixed time they can have an exclusive session with either Mom or Dad or both it settles a lot of the anxiety that may brew up over time. This is where a regular occasion can do the trick. A ride to school, the day the boys go fishing and the girls have some time at the shopping mall and so on. Use these opportunities to get to know each child on a personal basis. Avoid the skirmish when people get home, are hungry, need to do homework or want to watch their regular soapie for direct discussions. Males in particular do not like to be interrupted to have a serious discussion if they are busy reading or working. Choose your time.

Make sure each child has an equal share of exclusive time

If your children are old enough, explain to them well in advance that you are having another baby. Discuss and share the progress of your pregnancy at a level kids can understand. Ask their advice and sound them out about the opportunity for a younger brother or sister to join the family. By reassuring the older brother/s or sister/s that the newcomer is coming as a separate entity, a helpless baby that can't talk and sleeps most of the time will help them to also help out with "the baby". It is no threat to older children if they feel they are still in control of their share of Mom and Dad. They also have their siblings to turn to in a new context, as companions in the face of a new sibling challenge. This is the scenario that makes a third baby so different.

Go shopping togetherCredit: Sue Visser

Appreciate and work with the birth order as an aspect of individuality

Child number three becomes the rank outsider in most cases. Third children are usually quite unique and not easy to understand because they are generally non-conformists. Although they are more prone to accident and acts of carelessness, more third children achieve the non-verbal IQ of a genius as compared to the other siblings. The oldest child carries a more responsible role and the majority of state leaders, the monarchy and company directors are first-born.

The second born learns to be an all-rounder and does not have this weight to bear. The youngest and fourth of the siblings is by nature more casual and used to having more advantages - if not to learn from the examples of the babes that preceeded him or her. Fouths, like my husband and myself are go-getters and had to learn the responsibility of running our own company via the school of hard knocks. But inherent in our birth order is the ability to surge ahead and take risks that would make a firstborn blanch.

Remember that with persistent, impartial parental solidarity the children can be more drawn towards each other over time. They begin to see each other as allies, sharing the same generation as fellow siblings against an impenetrable wall of old fuddy duddy adult considerations. I grew up with two elder sisters and a brother. As one of the youngest two, I paired up with my older brother and we became devoted friends. But not so with second sister. She used to dominate her little brother, who as a third child and a genius at that was a torment to her sense of duty and ethics. My bother was a crazy computer genius and fathered three sons and had three wives. He died of cancer before the age of fifty and was bullied at school.

My eldest sister is still my best friend and ally. For over six decades we have shared a wonderful relationship and still do. She is my confidant and never, ever judges me or utters a harsh word. But as four boisterous children we had our fair share of squabbles. My mother would hear raised voices and never once did she ask who was responsible. We simply all had to pay the same fine from our weekly pocket money. It worked! Money talks, they say and Mom stood up as a universal barrier, an icon of hatred in the face of sibling conflicts. My father did not put up with kiddie quarrels, especially when he was driving the car.

We would be lined up in the back and the window seats were shared using a roster system based on mileage during a long trip. If we bickered and became unruly then he would grab his bamboo stick and hit out at the seat behind him with his other hand still on gripping the steering wheel. He said nothing - just stared ahead and the skirmish came to an abrupt halt. The stick was used to adjust the extended car mirror outside when he was towing our caravan. That stick had a nasty flick and could cause a red welt. Message felt, and remembered - even now as a grandmother myself! My parents did not nag. Instead, they warned and acted with a blow to the bum. We learned to listen to them and to this day I have honoured and respected and appreciated my parents.

Our old-fashioned parents gave us barriers to make us secure.They didn't buy into rivalry. We have tried to do the same with our daughter and son who have had to grow up in a more complex and uglier world. One wonders if they will ever learn to appreciate how hard we have tried, as most people do to be good parents. It seems not to be the case with us baby boomers! Our children talk to each other on mobile phones and we are not allowed to use corporal punishment. They are constantly distracted by social media and sibling rivalry takes off on a new platform. They call it Face Book. Things have changed. We can send an SMS to invite them to dinner. They interrupt dinner to see what their friends and siblings are doing on Face Book.

Brotherly loveCredit: Sue Visser

Their invisible yet well-defined barriers were to protect us and keep us from wandering astray. When we deserved it we got a spank. We understood why and if we were overactive or unable to concentrate we were not given drugs like Ritalin. Modern parenting is very different and young parents have different values. But a child without well-defined boundaries is very insecure and may experiment with all sorts of behaviour to get parental acknowledgement. It may be in the form of horror, disgust, anger or concern, but even these emotions help a child gague their territory. With siblings my parents gave their four children equal boundaries - the same set of family rules. We had an invisible barrier between the parent body and the sibling body. This was their key to controlling sibling rivalry and to a degree it kept the peace in a family of six.

To nip the sibling rivalry in the bud, remember these pointers:

  • Make a regular, special time for each child and get to know them as individuals.
  • Older children can be more personally involved with a new baby. Give them credit.
  • Time and circumstances are great healers. Young rivals can turn around and become good friends as adults. (Or not.)
  • Accept that whatever happens is not always the fault of the parents. Don't give in to emotional blackmail and be made to feel guilty for something you did not do intentionally.
  • Consider the birth order of your children and learn how it can have both positive and negative implications on their future relationships with future jobs and their peers.
  • Do some homework and get more insight. Share the experiences, as we do at Info Barrel.

I have a Mother, two sisters, a daughter and a grand-daughter. That's four generations that are affected by simultaneous sibling rivalry. The best advice I can give is to stay in present time. When things got too hot in our family, Mom would get up , wipe away the floods of tears and go and make a cup of tea. It worked!

Do not forget the laws of cause and effect. The Bible makes no bones about how to treat parents. In Exodus 20, we are given the 5th commandment - do as you would be done by!

“Honor your father and your mother,

that your days may be long upon the land

which the Lord your God is giving you ."


We all need to refer to the manual

Don't ignore the conflicts - learn how to deal with them

We all need the manual!

The sooner parents/children read this the better

The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are
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