How Birth Order Affects Sibling Conflicts

By Kevin Leman
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How do you parent sibling conflicts? You may have more success by knowing one secret: how your birth order affects your kids—in their birth order?

“I’m at my wit’s end,” Stephanie, mom of three, confided. “My kids always fight, but my 15-year-old is the worst. Each time I try to handle their conflict, she counters whatever I say. I walk away feeling like a bad mom. I don’t know what to do. She acts so much like . . . like . . .”

“Let me take a guess,” I said casually when she struggled for words. “She acts like you?”

You’ve probably not given much thought to your own birth order as it relates to your parenting, but it affects your perspective and how you respond to your children. Understanding how birth orders mix and match will help you parent your children in the way best suited to them — and will help you navigate the rough waters of parenting through sibling conflict.

What’s your birth order?

Before you look at your kids, what order they were born in and how that affects how they interact with one another, take a look at your own birth order and how it shaped you.

Firstborn

Lucky you, to have all your parents’ attention for a while. But as their guinea pig, everything you did — right or wrong — was heightened, so you became an achiever, leader and perfectionist (hard on others but hardest on yourself). You’re logical, well organized, have a strong sense of justice and take life seriously. You hate surprises — and your kids are full of them.

Only born

You’re everything a firstborn is but with extra doses of self-motivation, stress and high achievement. You think in black and white, use words like always and never and constantly raise the high bar on yourself.

Middle-born

Squished between firstborn star and entertaining baby, you mediated between the two warring parties enough that you learned to retreat if a fight brewed. Wanting life’s roads to be smooth, you avoid conflicts and compromise, rather than provoking a fight. You’re often elusive in your answers — “we’ll see . . .” — instead of stating yes or no.

Baby

Engaging and affectionate, you love people, activities, surprises and the limelight, but you sometimes dodge responsibility. Since you were “cute,” older siblings often got blamed for what you did because they were older, should have known better and let you get in trouble.

Engaging your kids’ conflict

Just as these birth-order characteristics are likely true of you, they’re also true of your kids, and that’s where the clashing occurs. There’s no such thing as treating your kids equally. You’ll always over-identify with the child of the same birth order as you — putting too much pressure on her or favoring him too much. How does this play out in real life?

Take a common scenario parents across the globe complain about: fighting kids. How do you respond? Has that worked in the past 15 years? Right, so why not try these birth-order strategies?

Firstborns make snap decisions about who’s at fault and level immediate punishments. Either you hold your firstborn responsible because she’s oldest and ought to know better (even though you hated that when your parents did it to you), or your critical eye zooms in on the baby, since your little brother got away with murder. Since you know you jump in to solve problems because you like issues defined and settled, and your firstborn child has the same black-and-white thinking and sense of justice, you two will understandably butt heads. You be the adult. Be the first not to engage in the fight. Step back and let your children try to sort it out.

Onlies spout an infamous line: “Can’t you all just get along?” Competition and fighting are natural among siblings, and frankly, as unavoidable as death and taxes. Give up those ideals, and like the firstborns, let your kids tussle it out.

Middlebornshate disharmony, so they step in to smooth things over — “Now, kids, what is this all about?” — and make the complaint fest worse. You jump to the middleborn’s defense, since you know what it’s like to be sandwiched in the middle of a mess you didn’t create. But don’t needlessly get involved in your kids’ fights. Realize that fighting is actually an act of cooperation (it takes two or more), so give them time to problem-solve. Then encourage your conflict-avoidance middleborn to stand up for himself.

Babies swoop in like avenging angels to defend the youngest: “Why are you picking on your little sister? What did she ever do to you?” Yes, you got away with a lot yourself, but you remember your siblings pounding on you when Mom wasn’t looking. However, don’t target the firstborn just because she’s the oldest. I guarantee your little angel helped fuel that conflict and needs a liberal dose of responsibility.

Such simple strategies will halt any power struggle in the making and will let your kids know you aren’t going to take sides — no matter what birth order you and they are.

Copyright ©2018 by Kevin Leman. Used by permission.

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About the Author

Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order Book, Have a New Kid by Friday and Making …

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