Implications of sibling position for Millennials.

Birth Order Theory has been researched for decades; the very premise of which is sibling position and its effects on personality and differentiation in childhood development.  Studies have shown that in general, FIRSTBORN children tend to be more “A” typical; focused on perfection, authoritarian in relationships and risk adverse. Middle born children are far less egocentric, more artistic and social.  YOUNGEST born children tend to be endearing, pampered and protected from adversity and therefore struggle to launch as independent adults. Coping skills are pivotal to successful launching and those are hard earned through trial and error. This requires that parents allow a child to fail and suffer consequences and then try again, all free of shame.  Herein lies the problem of birth order. 

Sibling position is the first role children learn in life and provides a template for how to interact in other relationships.  Siblings tend to assume the same roles in relationships outside of family life.  So, if a younger sibling is used to being sheltered from adversity both by parents and an older sibling, launching without the coddling and clean up of either can be rather difficult.  

Most firstborns struggle through some hardships together with their parents.  Both learn how to navigate the parent/child relationship by trial and error.  By child number two or three, parents, despite their best intentions, are more cavalier, spread thin by life and responsibilities.  And, despite their best intentions, parents are quite incapable of raising multiple children exactly the same.  Research shows that siblings are actually quite aware of this partiality in light of parental efforts to minimize the disparity by making sure all their children feel “equally” loved. 

There is often a triangular relationship between siblings and their parents.  Parents will often qualm their anxiety about one child by lassoing the other child into the situation.  Often the older sibling will engross the parent system in conversation or agreement about the pathological nature of the younger, less independent sibling.  This can look like a behavioral grade report when a parent gets home from work.  These experiences are often internalized as a lack of confidence, which limits the younger child’s ability to build intrinsic motivation, spark creative problems solving and develop a belief in self-improvement.  The more individuated sibling, often the oldest child, has learned to be self-supporting while the less individuated child, often the youngest, becomes more emotionally entangled with the parent and less able to differentiate and develop a clear, confident sense of self. 

So how is birth order related to the recent research on Millennials?  According to a New York Times article published in 2010, Millennials are behind in all five milestones of adulthood including: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having children.  Does it make sense why Millennials can’t seem to grow up? 

The 2010 Census offered some sobering statistics on the difficulty of launching in the 21st Century.  Only 50% of Americans currently in their mid-20’s are financially independent which was defined as earning enough to support themselves and a family.  Not to mention, 63% of men and 52% of women between 18-24 years live at home with their parents.  While a Newsweek poll from 1993 found that 80% of parents interviewed believed their children should be financially independent by 22 years, a similar pole today found that parents have raised that expectation to 25 years or more.  Call them shallow.  Call them self-absorbed.  But, Millennials might actually just be suffering from younger sibling syndrome.  Maybe parents today are less inclined to deal with their own fear and anxiety and more likely to use their children as a distraction, excuse or mediator in some pretty challenging times. 

Millennials are struggling to learn resilience.  When their parents and older siblings step in to prevent danger and difficulty, Millennials are blocked from real self-discovery.  It also sparks jealousy and conflict in sibling dyads.  Both resilience and self-actualization are paramount for successful launching.  

 

Julia Harkleroad, MS, LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Prairie Village, KS.  Julia serves children and families and runs groups on launching children for both the parents and their children.  She can be contacted at julia.harkleroad@gmail.com or 913.638.4791

 

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