Birth Order and Divorce
Part 2: Grief as Experienced by the Middle Child
She is the Cheech to my Chong, the Abbott to my Costello, the Timon to my Pumba. Always taking her job as The Official Family Reporter (a fancy way of calling her a tattle-tale) seriously, she remains in a state of perpetual preparedness, making mental notes of everything around her. The shortest of my children, she celebrates her petiteness by overachieving in school. She’s the youngest (and smallest) ten-year-old in the fifth grade and will celebrate her next birthday in June.
Like the dragon in Mulan, she says she is travel-sized for my convenience. But this little one is a force to be reckoned with.
The Psychology of the Middle Child
If you’re fortunate enough to have a middle kiddo, consider yourself very lucky. Statistics reveal that most Americans only have an oldest and a youngest. Simply put, they are a treasure, a rarity in a world where the average family has just 2.36 children.
The most difficult birth order to characterize, they tend to emulate and develop traits in direct distinction to those of the oldest in a family. They are generally likable people – acting as the glue or the balancer to ensure fairness is maintained within the brood. Getting the bird’s eye view over their older and younger siblings from their vantage point helps them shape their personalities.
They are the strongest child within a family. At best they receive hand-me-down everything. At worst, they’re overlooked in favor of their cuter, younger siblings or smarter, older ones.
They’re the negotiators, the fighters, the entrepreneurs, and the diplomats. Fiercely independent, they don’t tend to forget tasks on a list or directions on how to get to places or complete tasks.
Middle Child Position, Birth Order, and Divorce
When divorce rips apart a family, it’s normal for the children of the home to turn to each other for comfort. Their minds try to make sense of their new surroundings. Often, the middle child refuses to give in to their grief. Sometimes they may behave more like covert agents trying to gather data than like children.
Middle children need to feel like they have a job within the family, an irrevocable position. Having something they do better than anyone else can give them peace of mind when their world changes. Their need to harp on labels related to their birth order will become apparent as they focus more on their job description (and doing their job well) than their feelings.
Grief is an internal feeling, and they’ll internalize it. Few people are better at holding in their feelings than middles.
My Own Middle Child
Since infancy, my middle daughter has been closer to me than to anyone else. Just six years old in late 2011 when her father and I parted ways, she was already the most mature of my offspring. She loves her dad, sure, but she’s always held their relationship secondary to the one she has with me.
I noticed her pulling away from me in the initial aftermath of the end of my marriage. Your own middle may do this too. She’d sit quietly, alone in a room, rocking in a chair. She’d offered no explanation for her behavior, so I decided to give her space.
Two years passed with her doing this. At times, I was afraid she’d slip away from me forever. For a while there she seemed to prefer her father’s company and even asked to live with him. I refused her request not because I was using her to hurt him, but because the thought of letting her go with him felt as if I’d be letting her go. Mommas don’t give up on their children easily.
She stole money from me. Funny, but I didn’t notice it until she’d been doing it a while. I trusted her implicitly before then. There aren’t words to describe the sting I felt at her betrayal. I didn’t recognize my child at that point. She seemed to love material things she could buy more than she loved me. I couldn’t compete with trinkets.
Never before had she done anything against me. Suddenly, I was faced with needing to count my cash. And I had to keep it hidden where I knew she wouldn’t look.
Lying became her preferred tool. She’d lie about who gave her what, where she got things, where they were stashed… Depression is anger turned inward. It was clear that she was angry.
The entire time this went on, she still maintained the highest average in her grade.
We turned a corner shortly after my diagnosis came down. Faced with the prospect of losing me, her mother, she finally let me in. Slowly, she opened up. In doing so, the little girl I’d known returned to me bit by bit.
Today, we’re like peas and carrots. She knows she can talk to me about anything. She’s a snappy, intelligent, loving little diplomat who moonlights as a smart ass. We make jokes about the past and can laugh at all her bizarre behavior.
She inherited my spitfire tongue and witty disposition, and I’m glad she did.
Your children may act out post-divorce. They might use rebellion to cope with their new environment. The worst thing you can do to your middle kiddo is ignore their isolative behavior. Doing so can cause it to escalate into something more.
Getting your attention is their endgame. If they don’t feel loved enough (especially during divorce), they’ll do all they can to, at least, feel their presence is felt by you.
Birth order affects the ways in which children deal with stress. Their roles within a family are formed in large part by their ranking or position. Parents should do their best to try to make their kids feel equal in the grand scheme of things. But it’s the child’s perspective, the world from their own view that shapes who they are as people. Don’t discount their feelings (even if your little one seems to), and talk to them about your own.
Children need to know it’s okay to have feelings. They should be allowed to feel angry, even if it’s directed at their parents. Listen to them and accept their reasons. Talk to them about your own experiences. Above all, tell them you love them unconditionally.
And by the way…
In Part 1 of this series I mentioned a time when my oldest ran away down the street in the middle of the night. Remember that? I recalled that she took one of her siblings with her that night. Care to guess which one it was? Uh huh. It was the middle one.