Stress in the context of birth order

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This paper reviews literature reflecting on birth order as a determinant of personality characteristics and their role in response to stress. There is agreement that birth order dynamics alone cannot explain an individual’s response to stressful situations. In order to gauge the full effect of birth order dynamics the role and interplay between various variables must be fully considered.

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Birth order dynamics and its effect on stress processes is a controversial subject that calls for further research in order to apportion its contribution and its role in the overall ability to negotiate and cope with strenuous stimuli or experiences that increase the risk of psychosocial difficulties.


The contribution of ordinal position of birth order as attributes to personality characteristics and developmental pattern within a family setting has been well accepted though controversially. Agreement that the niche children cut for themselves within the family constellation dictates habitual response to stressful stimuli has been discussed. Archetypal birth orders are examined and their contribution to the differences between siblings suggested. The birth of a sibling affects older children in the family which may be confounded more by parental feedbacks, expectation and favoritism. The effect of extreme influences on childhood psychological development in relation to substance abuse in the family of origin, growing up with siblings with disability and blended families have been examined. Concerted and well controlled empirical research based on a strong theoretical base and cross cultural studies need be conducted to counter for the contradictions that have dominated the birth order effect assumptions.


Family roles influence the perceived expectation and responsibilities placed on children by parent and siblings. Children’s understanding of their place in the family constellation influences how they feel about themselves and how they interact with others (Kottman & Johnson, 1993). Constituents of family structure during the formative years that reflect emotional and affiliative ties are implicated in the psychological status, coping and relating styles of mature individuals (Fullerton, Ursano, Welzler & Shisarcich, 1989).

It is well agreed that some of the differences in behavior seen in siblings are attributes of birth order although many genetic and environmental factors contribute to this (Beer & Horn, 2000). Environment, as influencing personality is divided into shared and non shared. Shared environment refers to environmental factors that contribute to sibling similarity eg. Growing up in the same home (Borkeney, Pitman, Anglitner & Spinath, 2001). Non shared environmental influences reflect the differences in the experiences of siblings from the same family due to their unique sibling positions (Jang et al 1996). Some researchers attribute as much as 35% of the various of personality to non shared environment or birth order. The place of an individual within the family and the expected roles are the first social structure encountered and suggestions have been made as to its role and contribution in shaping human personality (Gould, 1997) and influencing interaction in subsequent social structures. An individual’s birth order is a possible influence on relationships with parents and siblings which may affect personality formation and social behavior across a lifespan (Buckley, 1998) but it is not in itself acceptable as the sole predictor of development across the lifespan. Socialization differences experienced due to ordinal position of birth may result in overt personality and behavioral differences. First born and only child in absence of other siblings tend to be socialized by adults whereas later born are socialized by older siblings and to a lesser extent adults older siblings (Claxton, 1994). Adult socialized as first born are theorized as more achievement oriented while their younger siblings are believed to be more successful in social tasks, and tend to enjoy risk taking behavior and are more independent of authority (Claxton, 1994).

Alfred Adler was one of the first of modern psychologists to address the influence of birth order on personality development across the lifespan. Since his description of the ordinal position of birth on personality many theories have been advanced to explain apparent differences (Claxton, 1994). Among these include dethronement of the first born, parental anxiety, economic factors, intrauterine conditions and historical cohort or supporter effects. Much of the debate on possible effects of birth order has focused on intellectual abilities, academic achievements (Bohmor & Sitton 1993, Morforibanks, 1997), economic resources (Travis & Kohli, 1995) and family intellectual environment (Travis & Kohli, 1995).


The ability to negotiate and cope with strenuous stimuli or experiences that increase the risk of personal, social or cognitive difficulties (Carson, Swanson, Cooney & Gillum, 1992) has been associated with children’s development, emotional adjustment and physical wellbeing. Children’s vulnerability or resilience when confronted with stress varies a great deal with the individual differences. Age, health status, temperament, hereditary, cognitive appraisal of stressors and locus of control are some of the factors implicated in this variation (Carson et al, 1992). Individuals adapt to distinct stressors in unique ways. Resilience is in some view a dynamic process (Carson et al, 1992) since it may be situational-specific to some extent. Inability to handle stress effectively in childhood has been associated with adjustment problems, anxiety disorders, antisocial behavior, hypervigilance and psychosomatic illness (Carson et al, 1992). Protective factors against stress include personality factors such as flexibility and sociability.

Interaction and relationship with peers, teachers and the community are experiences that buffer and assist a child in dealing with stressors (Carson et al, 1992). More importantly however, is the bond between siblings, parents and children which has been implied as a key determinant of resilience to stress in childhood. Coping style has also been associated with an individual’s characteristic harmonization and consistence with those of the family and family expectations. Greater compatibility may result in greater resilience when faced by stressful situations (Anthony,1987 in Carson et al, 1992).

True as it may be, successful coping is dependent upon individual and environmental factors. However, personal characteristics such as locus of control and competences are associated with greater resilience and more adaptive coping styles (Carson et al, 1992). These individual coping styles may override family factors with either positive or negative outcome.

Suggestions that first born personality exhibit much more resilience, intimating that first born individuals foster greater locus of control providing the individual with greater confidence in their ability to negotiate stressful stimuli.

It is suggested that stressors encountered in relationships in adult life may replicate those experienced in the first and most significant relationships of childhood, that of family members. Some adult relationships closely mirror the dynamics of those of childhood and the closer the aspects of an adult interpersonal relationship mirrors siblings or parent and child relationship dynamics the greater the chance that an individual will apply the coping skills learnt in childhood situation (Buckley, 1998)

Animal Studies

Cortisol, a blood hormone associated with stress has been used as an indication of response to stress inducing stimuli. When subjected to fear inducing situation such as confrontation with an unfamiliar human, first born infant Rhesus monkey’s blood level of cortisol were found to be twice as high as their later born siblings. Inconsistency and inept maternal behavior was implicated in this reaction. Maternal cortisol levels in stressed simian mothers were found to be higher in first time mothers than mothers who had given birth to several offsprings (Black, 1998).

Birth of Siblings

The birth of a sibling brings significant changes in the family structure and environment. Close interactions with an older child diminishes especially if the birth interval is short and the mother adapts a more controlling parenting style (Basdar, 1997). An older child who is subjected to this situation may exhibit regression, anxiety and aggression (Bischoff & Trugstrong, 1991).

Studies focusing on the immune system have attempted to correlate the birth of a younger brother, described as particularly traumatic experience, for the first born children aged between two to three years with the status of the older child’s immune system function. Decrease in effectiveness of immune function such as expression of T3, T4 lymphocytes and phagocytes beginning in the period preceding the birth of the younger sibling were documented (Rosaschno et al, 1991 – 1992). The prospect of dethronement on the first born may present a potential physiological repercussion and anxiety when faced with this destabilizing scenario (Lederman, 1996).

Sibling rivalry is well documented as integral to the possible effects of birth order on personality development. Positive parenting styles undoubtedly attenuate a great deal of potentially detrimental and explosive effects of sibling rivalry (Bischoll & Trugstrog, 1991). Birth order effects may diminish over time and disappear by adulthood (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Longitudinal investigation covering psychological development over a period of time may be necessary to determine the lifetime significance of any potential personality and developmental effects influenced by birth order position.

If there is any significant relationship between the archetypal characteristic which are popularly accepted stereotypes and ordinal positions of birth, it is thought that it is easily moderated by many factors that are unique to the individual, the environment or a combination of both. Birth order in isolation may not be seen as exerting a powerful influence, however some differences may emerge when combined with other factors affecting the family.

Psychological Birth Order

Birth order personalities are formed early in life. As sibling mature, each one selects a niche or position in the family constellation. The younger siblings select different niches from the older ones. This niche selection process has been used to explain the difference in trait and personality characteristic that siblings display (Buckley, 1998). Children have to solve particular obstacles presented to them by the particular position in the family that they occupy, by using a set of coping skills which then become birth order characteristics. Numerical place in the family does not necessarily correspond to psychological birth order or prompt development of particular archetypal characteristics that have been associated with a certain ordinal birth position.

Adlerian theory purports that a child situation should be regarded from the individual’s perspective (Utay & Utay, 1996). This Adlerian premise has been introduced to accommodate the concept of psychological birth order which seems to explain discrepancies seen in children who the archetypal characteristics do not seem to conform to the ordinal birth order. In the instance that a second born child consistently outshine a weak or slow first born he or she may assume the traits that Adler ascribed to the oldest child. The two then switch roles within the family dynamics (Buckley, 1998) and the ordinal and psychological birth order differ. Responses to stress will then be characterized and dictated by the psychological birth order characteristics the individual has assumed.


The Only Child

Suggestions have been expressed that only children have poorer interpersonal skills which result in less effective and fulfilling relationships and the resultant poorer mental health. This is not however backed by any empirical research (Falbo, 1984). In childhood they may however be referred more often for therapeutical intervention which has been attributed to closer monitoring and over protectiveness of parents (Falbo, 1984). Not much research followed individuals into adult life to determine if there is any possible effect of being raised as a sole child has any lasting consequences (Falbo, 1984). Only children experienced the high parental expectation for the oldest child and the lavish and generous pampering of the last child. Some research indicates that only child who attempts to fulfill all the expectations of their parents retard in developing adulthood autonomy and are less independent than any other birth order (Byrd et al, 1993 in Buckley, 1998). This is more true of female only children who may traditionally be expected to be more involved with their parents across the lifespan.

First Born – Most stressed?

First born has an indeterminate period of access to parental attention which is not complicated by sibling interjection (Altus, 1972). Dethronement, a first born experience upon the birth of a younger sibling is an accepted and popularized concept. Parental interaction with their two year olds becomes more vigilant, less playful and more strained following the arrival of a sibling. Psychoanalytic view explains that distress instigated by this experience causes the older child much jealousy and bitterness which are often repressed and may manifest as adulthood insecurity (Falbo, 1984). General agreement is that some dethronement effect occurs but their strength and extent in terms of duration are not clear. Subsequent offsprings may experience some distress also when a younger child is born into the family, the intensity of which is much less than in the first born.

Dethronement is cited frequently in case histories of children referred for psychiatric intervention and a high incidence of behavioural problem are noted for dethroned older children but to what extent this effect is as a resultant of this experience is debatable as it is a challenge that many children encounter. The effect of parental inexperience, anxiety, incompetence and inconsistence rather than the experience of dethronement may instill greater anxiety in first born (Sears et al, 1957, Ernst & Angst, 1983). The first born may experience more inconsistent treatment in inexperienced parents which is thought to be detrimental to formation of stable self concept fostering more dependence and fearfulness. (Hilton, 1967 in Ernst & Angst, 1983). This may explain similar characteristics displayed by only children. With subsequent births parents gain more experience and are more permissive.

The first born and the only child may seek out personal interaction as a response to distress more than individuals of other birth order positions. This was attributed to more attentive response to the child’s distress (Falbo, 1984) presumably leading to the expectation that significant others will be comforting in times of distress. Perhaps the first borns are more likely than their later born siblings to associate anxiety with affiliation or associations and thus comfort from others (Ernst & Angst, 1983). Parental expectations and pressures for success exerted upon the first born compared with subsequent children may be responsible for the greater academic achievement which is seen in the first born. Parental expectations for the first born to achieve may instill greater drive to accomplish in the child or build anxiety of inability to live up to parental expectations. If internalized, the chronic anxiety may alter habitual response to stress. The realization that the parental expectations are unattainable may lead to compromised self esteem (Simpson 1965, De Avila, 1971). Parents tend to perceive older children as strong and intelligent and often given them more control over their environment than younger children. This has been associated with controlling outlook, leadership qualities in adulthood and obsession with rules and regulations (Buckley, 1998).

Birth order characteristic may manifest differently for males and females. More restrictions are imposed on the first child because of the anxieties of and not knowing how to deal with a new baby and towards females in general who believably receive harsher socialization than males in many societies (Boling & Eisenman, 1993).

Middle Child

The middle child is expected to become more successful in innovative endevours because their position requires competition against the first arrival, the first born is the pace setter, the second born must strive to keep pace, instilling a constant competitive drive (Bohmer & Silton, 1993). The earliest memory may be dominated by stronger, bigger and more advanced sibling, catching up could be the main goal. Alternatively setting high goals in a position unoccupied by an older sibling may be a strategy adopted by a middle child. Unchecked competition may develop into restlessness or neuroticism (Richardson & Richardson, 1990).

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The middle child never expects complete parental attention and may foster greater cooperation. The stereotype of a neglected middle child may manifest after an internalized lack of specific role in the family and difficulty in finding a unique identity especially after being displaced by third born (Buckley, 1998). However it may foster great resilience to stressors as well as diplomacy in dealing with a variety of personalities in attempts to negotiate potentially domineering older siblings and attention stealing younger siblings. It has been suggested that middle children may become the least anxious (Willen et al, 1972 in Ernst & Angst, 1983), harmonious, leisurely and extrovert individual.

Youngest Child

The youngest children are more able to pace themselves successfully against older siblings without experiencing psychological exhaustion as the middle child may encounter (Buckley, 1998). Encouraged by constant peer interaction they develop good social skills. These individuals are often secure yet dependent, an attribute emanating from having multiple care takers throughout childhood. Difficulties in establishing autonomy has been observed in adulthood accompanied by a feeling of inferiority and concern of not being regarded seriously (Richardson & Richardson, 1990). This is worsened by the fact that throughout childhood everyone else was stronger, older and more competent and the worry that competition on the same footing may be impossible (Ernst & Angst, 1983).


Twins share the same birth order they occupy. If they are the only children they will share the characteristics of oldest and youngest child. In situations where the difference in time of delivery is emphasized by family, diluted characteristics of other ordinal positions may be experienced. Their often intense emotional bond may result in difficult in achieving individualism later in life (Richardson & Richardson 1990). Siblings often seek to be different in order to establish identities which may be particularly distressing for twins (Buckley, 1998). Twins are an extreme case of later born since there is no child rearing interval in between them and are often treated as a unit.

Only children are extremes of first born since they have their parent’s attention to themselves during their entire childhood. Later born have divided attention all through. The traits and personality characteristics dictated by both ordinal birth position and psychological birth order are to a large extent moderated by the family structure dynamics. Some of these include parental attitudes, parental feedback, parental expectations, self esteem, psychopathology, extreme influence on development.

Family Structure Dynamics

Suggestion has been made that mothers usually show a very high level of consistency in raising both first and second born siblings when both children were at the same age. Children often do not perceive this as their cognitive and emotional skills are not mature to appreciate this (Musunn-Miller, 1993).

The feelings of parental favoritism occur commonly. A surveys conducted showed that 62% of subjects reported that one or both parents apparently showed favouritism on one child in the family (Zervas, 1994). Birth order was incriminated for this occurrence (Zervas, 1994). Adler conceded that the favoured child had developmental advantages but the deleterious effect on other children in the family was difficult to estimate. Children’s self esteem depends and relied on their perceptions of how their parents and significant others viewed them. Children who perceived themselves as non-favoured may experience feelings of rejection, inferiority, anger, depression and incompetence. The favoured child may benefit from greater security and adoration but may be troubled by sibling jealousy and greater obligation to the parents (Carson et al, 1992) or guilt and empathy depending on the sibling relationship. Favoured children have been found to have a lower social self esteem attributable to frequent peer rejection and less opportunity to socialize due to lower support and obligations (Zervas, 1994). Expression of favouralism has been regarded as dangerous and detrimental to the whole family (Bleber, 1997). Parent and child relationship and interactions are extremely important in the formation of self esteem which is a crucial contributor to the psychological well being (Zervas, 1994). It is still debated whether the components of self esteem influenced mostly by parental relationship are restricted to familiar environment or if it is global.

Parental Feedbacks

The differences in siblings thought to be due to ordinal positions of birth are generally believed to arise from differential socialization within the family set up by the parent. Empirical evidence suggests that the amount of process or outcome feedback an individual receives may be associated with birth order status (Claxon, 1994). This implies that birth order based differences in parental feedback may contribute to personality and behavioural differences that have been linked to ordinal position of birth (Claxton, 1994)

Parental Expectations

Each family member experiences and interprets family dynamics differently. Children growing up in the same family may have vastly different childhood experiences. Research has indicated that inter family experiences may be as diverse as intrafamily experiences.

Part of the differences in the family experiences may be due to the parental expectations which vary with birth order. Adults have more expectation for their first born and tend to describe them more positively than subsequent arrivals (Kalmun & Davidson, 1992). Differences may also be attributed to the tone that the sibling constellation itself brings to family interaction, determined by sibling spacing, gender and birth order (Dunn & Kendrick, 1982). Establishing a clearer association between parental attributions and the behavior they exhibit towards their children would be instructive in determining how this may affect parent and child relationship (Masun-Miller, 1993).

Self Esteem

The level of self esteem is determined by comparison of self with others. First and only child compare themselves to their parents whereas later born compare themselves with the older siblings. The child to parent comparison yields greater discrepancy than child to child comparison. Hypothetically child – parent comparison has been found to yield lower self esteem in first born and only children (Zimberdo & Fomica, 1963)


The effects of perceived parental attitudes in childhood on the onset or causation of adult psychopathology is well studied (Kitamura, Sagawara, Shuma & Foda, 1998). Individuals experiencing depression with a neurotic component have been found to report a lower degree of care and a greater degree of over protection in childhood (Parker & Hafzi-Parloric, 1882).

For adult psychopathology with stress as a component of its onset, it may be clinically and theoretically useful to understand how the parental attitudes were formed. This could allow for more effective intervention and prevention. For researchers it may provide an insight about the link between perceptions of childhood experiences in different birth order position and adult experiences of psychopathology (Kitamura et al, 1998).

A relationship between ordinal position of birth and variety of psychopathology has been suggested (Ernst & Angst, 1983). The belief that the first born experiences more mental illness has been widely spread (Skinner, 1997). In a study in which first born males were found to obtain lower psychopathological well being scores than their later born counter parts no differences were found between females of different birth orders (Fullerton et al 1989). Yet, the first borns have been found to score lower on measures of depression than the later borns and exhibit less anxiety and higher self esteem (Gates, Lineberger, Crocliett & Lubberd, 1988). It may be instructive to analyze these effects at different stages through the lifespan as it is thought that some of these conflicting results could be effects of change over life span.

During childhood first the borns are over represented among problem children (Adler 1956). Some think that the first borns have a greater vulnerability to stress, inclination to addictive substance abuse and sensitivity to pain in adulthood (Skinner, 1997). Female first borns have been found to score higher on dimension of hypochondria than later born women. This has been attributed to being raised by parents lacking child rearing experience. It may be related to an excessively slowing or unrealistic concern about the first child’s development. This is thought to be generated by unrealistic assessment of the severity of childhood maladies and excessive sympathetic behavior during illness (Skinner, 1997). This over concern has been linked to a morbid fixation on their own physical health throughout the lifespan (Skinner, 1997). This effect may be particularly true for female children since gender role in socialization concerning illness behavior may be involved (Skinner, 1997).

In another study where women were identified as substance dependent a psychological profile traditionally attributed to a third ordinal birth position was over represented. It was suggested that a contributing factor to the substance abuse was a need to establish a unique place in the family constellation (Utay & Utay, 1996).

Extreme Influence on development

First born children may be at a greater risk of psychological development deficit in a single parent family. Faced with an inexperienced caretaker and mentor, a child like this may have benefited from two parents. With limited adult caretaking deleterious effects of a nervous first time parent may be more pronounced (McCarthy & Anglin, 1990). Within a family system, children adopt roles to fit into the family (Alford, 1998). In families affected by substance abuse, roles adopted may be altered to accommodate the dysfunction. Parental substance abuse impacts the normal role definition within the family constellation (Alford, 1998). Adult children of alcoholics frequently have pathological issues with rigid role patterns that were initiated during childhood to survive emotionally in a family rendered dysfunctional by substance abuse. Roles assigned according to ordinal position of birth may become more unidentifiable or even take on exaggerated aspects of the archetypal birth order characteristic.

Siblings of children with disability have been found to perceive their mothers to be partial to their less endowed children than did children without disabled siblings (Bischoff & Tengstrom, 1991). Evidence is available that children born in families with challenged siblings experience more stress and are at higher risk of development of behavioural problem and psychopathology than children in families without disabled children. Sibling relationships in families with children with physical and mental challenges are complex and are affected by a number of variables including care taking responsibilities, age, socio-economic status, severity of disability as well as birth order (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). Parental attitude is suggested to be important factor. Children born in these families need to be supported in a way that provides an opportunity for them to develop an identity despite the potentially stressful home environment and the sibling with the disability; they should also be assisted to develop coping and problem solving strategies (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991).

The traditional nuclear family in which the birth order archetypes are based may no longer be representative of the general population (Bischoff & Tingstrom, 1991). In a nuclear family birth order is stable but in blended families where one or both parents bring in children from previous relationships to the union there is disruption in the hierarchy of birth order. Children may lose their sense of stability and may feel they have lost their place in the family (Buckey, 1998). This disruption in home life may be a substantial source of distress. Children faced with these situations need to be assisted to realize that their identity is not determined by their place in the previous or present family and this does not necessarily affect their sense of self.


It is agreed that sufficient knowledge is deficient on the area of birth order effects. More research needs to be done to generate new information regarding effects of birth order on personality and the response to stress. Birth order effects are seldom unitary but involve other family aspects such as gender of sibling, differences in age and whether the sibling was wanted or planned for which often affects parental child rearing attitudes and practices. The effect of variables such as social class and family size must be taken into account as factors that may contribute to birth order effects.

Because of interaction effects with age, gender, siblings spacing and others, the effects of birth order could actually be underestimated. Birth order should not be ignored when looking to explain personality dimensions, because of the contribution of the unique niche roles that siblings maintain. Youngest and younger children of large families are more extraverted than their older siblings.

Existing birth order literature have lacked an adequate theoretical perspective which has resulted in much of the ambiguity currently plaguing the field. What may be consistent about the birth order effects is the general strategies that individuals occupying particular ordinal position of birth order may utilize to deal with particular stressors that their position in the family constellation dictates and not the specific behavior employed to achieve these ends.

The need to provide documentation of environmental contribution motivates pursuance of the effects that environmental pressures may exert in shaping the personal characteristics of the individuals. It may eventually provide a useful tool for ascertaining whether any benefit is realized by being placed at a certain order in the family. A potential danger, however, is that individuals may become constrained by stereotypes imposed by themselves and others by the belief that archetypal roles cannot be transcended. Learned responses can be altered. Children coping skills can be modified through creative problem solving experiences, confl

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