In the Media

My Sister, My Self

Birth Order and Adult Sibling Relationships
Maureen Kochan
Date updated: September 07, 2006
Content provided by Revolution Health Group

George W. Bush had a little-known edge in the 2004 presidential election. No, it wasn't incumbency or even Karl Rove, his savvy political adviser. It was birth order.

Like a majority of U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices and even NASA astronauts, Bush was the firstborn child in his family.

"When you think about it, firstborns go where no other sibling has gone," says Vikki Stark, a family therapist in Montreal and author of My Sister, My Self (McGraw-Hill, 2006). "They are used to being trailblazers and taking responsibility for everyone else."

While we may never know the sibling dynamic that exists between Bush and his younger brothers and sister, experts like Stark agree that birth order can continue to influence sibling relationships long after the youngest child casts her first vote for president.

"You've had a lifetime of practice in these family roles," says Irene Haskew, a North San Diego County, Calif.-based marriage and family therapist.

She even likens the longevity of birth-order roles to the first language we learn. "You may move to another country, you may try to learn the other country's language, but you're going to always speak your own," she says.

Of course, the typical birth-order roles don't play out in every family. For instance, in some families, the middle child, not the firstborn, acts as a surrogate parent. Yet, no matter what role you assumed as a child, experts say you're likely to continue playing that role as an adult.

While these family roles may indeed "die hard," as Stark puts it, ambivalence about letting them go often exists. "You want to stay in your comfort zone but then you don't respect yourself for it," Stark says.

So like an actress relegated to sex kitten roles, will we remain pigeonholed by adult siblings because of our spot on the family timeline? The answer is a resounding no — if you choose to rewrite your part.

"Gently and not defensively, try to behave in ways that are more consistent with your preferred self-image," Stark says.

Advice for firstborns, aka "The Surrogate Parents"
Typical traits: responsible, logical, rule-abiding, perfectionist, driven, authoritarian

  • Take leave from your job as sibling CEO: As the first to conquer life's key milestones, it's no wonder siblings looked up to you. But as your plate crowds with career demands and your own family's needs, acting like a surrogate parent to adult siblings can make you as weary as a pack mule climbing the Grand Canyon.

    "Talk to your siblings openly," Haskew says. "They might not even be aware it's getting to you."

    Adulthood should bring a softening of sibling hierarchy — and with it a cue to relinquish your role as surrogate parent. Try letting younger siblings organize the next family reunion or holiday get-together.
  • Avoid the temptation to give advice: "If a younger sibling usually asks for your advice, you can say, instead, 'Hmm, that's an interesting problem. How have you been thinking about solving it?' " Stark says. "Your younger sibling may push for you to slip back into the old role and tell her what to do," she says. But remember now is the time to act like a peer, not a parent, before your sibling comes to see your well-intended advice as meddling.
  • Acknowledge your siblings' accomplishments: As the firstborn, you may be used to high expectations from your parents. But in adulthood, your high-achieving and perfectionist ways may alienate others — especially siblings. When a younger sibling cooks a nice meal, offer a sincere compliment and don't act as if Halley's Comet just made a rare appearance in the night sky.
Advice for middle children, aka "The Peacekeepers"
Typical traits: negotiator, insightful, realistic, creative, independent, passive, solitary

  • Be Switzerland: Middle children grow up literally in the center of things and tend to see both sides of an issue. In adulthood, this knack for diplomacy often places you squarely in the middle of sibling disputes. Encourage squabbling siblings to find common ground, but that's your limit.
  • Don't seek peace at any price: You know to avoid negotiating sibling truces. But middle children often shy away from all conflict, which puts them in a harmful people-pleasing role. Instead, learn to communicate — and defend, when necessary — your feelings. "Speak your mind," Haskew says. "You're as equal as they are."
  • Establish an identity outside your family: Middle children possess a powerful need to feel special among siblings because they often lacked a clear family role growing up.

    Think about it: When parents introduce children, they'll say, "This is Mike, my oldest" or "This is Sarah, my youngest." When it comes to middle children, parents may simply say, "This is Jane."

    From an early age, the middle child's family role may have been hazy — even to parents — and as a result middle children often spend a lifetime trying to find their "place." Make it a priority to establish your own likes and dislikes and outside relationships, all of which help strengthen your identity and set you apart from siblings.
Advice for youngest children, aka "The Charming Rebels"
Typical traits: highly social, creative, laid-back, unconventional, dependent, manipulative

  • Stop playing the baby role: No whining, complaining or trying to get your own way. "Think about the persona you project in an important business meeting and try out that side of you the next time you get together with your family," Stark says.
  • Don't take advantage of older siblings: The youngest child in the family often enjoys a tremendous sense of security with so many older siblings to watch her back. As a result, she may come to rely on her family of "fixers" to right every problem she encounters. The next time your dishwasher breaks, call a repairman — not a handy older sibling.
  • Get the respect you crave: Youngest children often get a lot of attention — but not a lot of respect. Older siblings tend to see them as charming rebels, affectionate and engaging but prone to manipulation.

    Break out by acting like the grownup you are. "You were handed this birth order," Haskew says, "and you don't have to stay there."

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