Child Caring

Middle Child Woes May Be Compounded by Developmental Stages


I'm the mother of three, two girls, 16 and 14, and a son, 5. My girls are from my 1st marriage and my son is from my current.

My concern is with my 14 yr old, who has typical middle child syndrome and I'm thinking some jealously with her brother. She argues with him and puts him down. I would like advice on helping them bond and help her not feel the way she must be feeling to be acting this way. It's causing conflict in my marriage. She also has been showing signs of social anxiety.

Thank you

From: TS, Crestline, CA

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Dear TS,

Some of this may be the Middle Child Squeeze but at the same time, both these kids are at crossroad stages where they are likely experiencing developmental ups and downs that are making matters worse. In other words: you've got a perfect storm where he likely is more annoying than ever and she's is more reactive to it than ever.

For your 5 y-o, the summer and especially the weeks leading up to k can be awful for the family, as he moves back and forth between wanting to be more "grown up" (because that's what K signals to a child), and wanting to stay a "baby." As he moves along this continuum, his behaviors can change, literally, from moment to moment, acting like a 3-year-old and, two minutes later, like a 6-year-old. Annoying? You bet, especially to a 14-year-old who is struggling with her own emotional struggles: One day she relishes the idea of being a full-blown teenager, the next, the idea of that is incredibly scary. For hyer, the erratic behavior of a 5 year old is the foil for her own feelings. She's calling him a loser? Putting him down? That may be exactly what she's feeling about herself.

In fact, both your kids likely have the same underlying worry: "What if I can't make it?" (BTW, I'm assuming your son is going into K, but even if it's first grade, he still has similar issues. Kids consider first grade as "real school" and worry they won't be able to do it. Read more on transition to K. Here for transition to 1st.)

Some strategies:

Give each child individual time alone with you. It doesn't have to be a major chunk of time, and you obviously need to cater it to their needs, but time alone with you will help them each feel special and have less need to act out.

Acknowledge aloud to your daughter that, yes, little brothers can be a pain sometimes. Instead of forcing her to "love" him, or be "nice" or "kind" or whatever, give her permission to feel whatever she feels. If she knows you understand, she will have less need to be so hard on him.

Help her develop some strategies for dealing with her brother. She can't be mean, but she can set boundaries on her belongings. She's allowed "private time."

Take her side if he's being annoying, especially if you see it. Give them both strategies.

Does she remember what it was like going into K? Can she help him feel more ready? (Boys often need practice with pencil skills.)

Encourage her strengths rather than point out her weaknesses. Help her to know she has a role in the family (can you count on her to lighten a tense moment? look on the bright side of things? does she have the best voice? know how to whip up the best snack?) and that you value it.

Last but not least, I hope this helps you and your husband understand that what most likely is fueling your kids' behaviors is developmental. If you believe the heart of the problem is jealousy about family composition, I suggest you will seek professional help.