Birth Order: How does being the youngest child impact personality? By Guenette du Ville, LMFT
Our siblings are our most constant companions throughout our lives. Our relationships with our parents and children are incredibly precious, and yet for the most part, our siblings are our shadows, and these relationships practically spans our whole lives. So it makes sense that these relationships have a significant impact on our development as individuals.
I’ve worked with many adults who are the youngest in their families, and several characteristics emerge as being similar in these clients. These characteristics are some that I see in myself, as I am also the younger of 2 children. I used to say to my friends, “Once you meet my sister, you’ll understand me better.” It was a rather odd statement, and yet it was true. I’ve never existed without my older sister, and we have gone through different life stages together, with her always being a few years older than I am. As I grew up, this saying became less and less true for me as I gained other contexts, like college, jobs, and other relationships. Yet, for some people, these characteristics that have defined us since birth are difficult to shake off.
Some of these characteristics show up as “problems” or “issues” in therapy, particularly when talking about family dynamics and relationships. The following are some of the characteristics that I’ve seen come up time and time again. Please keep in mind that these are meant to be a large brushstroke and may not apply to every youngest sibling.
Youngest children tend to compare themselves to others:
It’s pretty common for family members and friends to reminisce about when our older siblings were our age. I’m sure these loved ones don’t mean any harm, and yet, these comments register as comparisons in our minds. Take for example, a child who reads a lot. A possible comment might be saying that her older sister was really into sports at her age. While this is a descriptive statement, the child may internalize it as “I’m not sporty enough” or “my sister is sporty, and I’m a bookworm.” As a result, the child may create her identity around this, thinking “my sister is the athletic one, and I’m not.” Even as adults, the child may continue to create her identity through comparing and contrasting with peers, i.e. “She’s skinny, I’m fat,” or “She’s successful, I don’t have a career.” These comparisons may become damaging to her psyche.
Youngest children tend to have unrealistic expectations of themselves:
Having older siblings is like having a moving marker ahead of you with no possible way to reach it. Instead of comparing ourselves to our older siblings when they were our age, we tend to equate ourselves to our siblings now. Because of this, we end up perpetually feeling less wise, less accomplished, and less successful. I’ve heard statements like “I’m such a failure compared to my siblings” or “I’m the least successful one in my family.” This is an inferiority complex waiting to happen!
Youngest siblings get what’s left:
I don’t mean food or resources or even hand-me-downs; I’m talking about roles in the family. The longer a family has been together, the more rigid each person’s role becomes. By the time the youngest sibling arrives, the family has established a pretty consistent and fixed dynamic that more or less works for everyone involved. The youngest sibling ends up adopting whatever role the family still needs/lacks. Imagine a family where everyone is happy-go-lucky and doesn’t care too much about responsibilities. The youngest sibling then is almost compelled to fill in any gaps left by other family members and has to be “the responsible one.” Or imagine another scenario where the whole family fights all the time and there’s palpable tension in the home. The youngest sibling may feel inclined to break the tension by being a joker or by redirecting the focus of the family onto himself. I use the analogy of filling in the cracks of a plate to stabilize it.
Youngest children tend to feel invisible:
The youngest in the family can be the most valued and precious in the family… or the least important. Youngest siblings can feel like they are forever trying to get involved with “the big kids” and be dismissed for being too young. Families can get so wrapped up in the activities and accomplishments of the older members of the family that the youngest seems forgotten or unnoticed. The youngest’s milestones and accomplishments are no longer novel, therefore not as celebrated. I’ve heard multiple clients say, “I don’t even have any baby pictures!” The long-term effect of this may be thoughts and feelings of insignificance and passivity. The child learns that he does not matter, and neither do his thoughts, opinions, and ideas. This schema can lead to not going for that promotion, or letting his partner make all the decisions, or putting value on others more than on himself.
So how do we address these issues? Even though getting past these characteristics is a tall order, it can definitely be done. The key is to find one’s self-worth both as an individual and as a member of the family. In therapy, we can work on addressing the distorted thoughts that lead us to value ourselves as less than others, as well as highlighting the reality that we are precious, creative, successful and whole in our own rights. We can learn to be assertive and to create a relationship of equality with our siblings in adulthood. We can learn to define ourselves.
Guenette du Ville is a licensed marriage and family therapist and is currently accepting new clients. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-272-6858 x702.