Birth Order and Child Personalities: A Glimpse Into Adlerian Theory and Contempory Ideas

Updated on January 20, 2017

What is Birth Order?

Birth order is simply the order in which a child was born in a given family. In a family of three for example, the first child born would be the first born, the second child would be the middle born, and the youngest child would be the later born child or the third born. A child's birth order can also be classified as the child's age in relation to the other children. This seems logical enough right? However, the idea becomes more complicated when you consider what affect birth order can have on a child's personality.

Personality: Can Birth Order Determine A Child's Personality?

Although there are many factors that can attribute to a child's personality such as poverty, family structure, adoption, remarriage, mental or physical detriments and many others, most scholars would agree that children do have their own unique personality traits depending on their birth order when looked at as a whole.

One psychological scholar in particular, Alfred Adler, did a lot of research on birth order and even developed a birth order theory. Through his research Alfred Adler developed the idea that birth order can and does affect a child's personality. I must note Adler not only believed that birth order could predetermine to some point a child's personality, but that the child's environment was influential as well.

Let's take a closer look at Adler's Birth Theory and see what traits he believed could be tied to birth order.

First Born Children

Alfred Adler believed the first born children in a given family would receive plenty of attention. However, the great amounts of attention would only last until the second child was born. When the second child is born, the first child would be "dethroned" (Adler's coined term). When the first child losses the control of the attention, the first child can react in several ways:

  • can cause first child to protect him/herself against reversals
  • can cause first born child to be insecure or ultra conservative
  • can cause first born to be a helper to the parents when the second child is brought into the picture.

Second Born And Middle Children

Alfred Adler believed the second born children (in some families the middle child), grows up sharing the attention from the caregivers with the first born. Adler believed the fact that since the second born children grow up sharing the attention, the children in general, are more likely to cooperate. The second born have the luxury of having a set example to follow. The eldest children set examples and become a role model for the younger siblings; this leads second born children to try to follow and catch up to older siblings. Adler believes the second child is the most likely to be better adjusted to life in general than other birth orders.

The theory also notes that any child in any birth order besides the youngest can be dethroned when another child comes into the picture.

Last Born: The Baby

According to Adler, the baby can not be dethroned by another sibling. The younger sibling seems to have no followers but can be antagonistic towards the older siblings. In most families the baby of the family tends to get more attention, since most of the older children have moved on to different developmental stages in life, have developed some since of independence and they no longer rely on the parents for everything.. leaving the bulk of the attention for the youngest child.

Contempory Views on Birth Order and Personality

Alfred Adler addressed his ideas in his theory of birth order based on the knowledge he acquired through his studies during his lifetime. In today's society there is research that indicates specific personality traits that each birth order holds unique. Although the following claims are not scientifically and statistically proven, the traits can be seen in children of certain birth order positions.

First Born:

  • Reliable
  • Conscientious
  • Cooperative
  • Nurturer
  • people pleaser
  • Greater confidence level
  • Organized
  • Assertive
  • Perfectionist

Second Born/Middle Born: Some sources vary on the personality type of the second and or middle child. I will describe both personality types I found by calling them Jack and Jane.


  • Quiet
  • Impatient
  • Shy


  • Patient
  • Outgoing/Loud/Rambunctious
  • Friendly

Traits shared by both possible personality types:

  • Competitive
  • Attention Seeking
  • Flexible
  • Competitive

Last Born, the "babies" of the family:

  • Risk takers
  • Life of the party type personality
  • Attention Seeking
  • Sensitive

These lists were compiled from several sources and from memory of prior classes I have taken:

Harris, Kimberly A. & Morrow, K. Brent. (1992). Differential Effects of Birth Order and Gender on Perceptions of Responsibility and Dominance. Individual Psychology: Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, 48(1), 109-118.

MacDonald, A.P. (1971). Birth order and personality. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Volume 36, Issue 2.

What About Only An Only Child?

The jury is still out when it comes to developing a personality type for an only child. Some researchers will say that an only child will develop the first born characteristics, while other researchers state that the only child could belong to any of the birth order personalities. For example, the only child could hold the first born's personality characteristics or they could hold the last born's characteristics.

Final Personal Commentary

To be completely honest there needs to be more quantitative and qualitative research done regarding personality and birth order. Although some of Adler's birth order theory is still relevant today, I believe there needs to be more research done. There has been research reported from self reporting inventories and parental questionnaires, however, statistically speaking the data is not significant.

I know from experience that birth order can definitely affect a person's personality, but so can a variety of other factors. These factors include family structure, socioeconomic status, mental/physical health of the people in the family, gender, divorces/ new marriages, death of a parent or a sibling, and a variety of other factors. It is crucial to not base a personality solely on the birth order of the child, the whole picture needs to be evaluated.

What has your experience been with your family? Did the children fall in line with the birth order personalities described in this article or were they completely opposite? Drop me a comment and let me know or take a minute and fill out my survey, I'm interested in people's experiences! :-)

Your Birth Order Experience

Did you fall into the personality type for your birth order?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      So I came along about 8 years after my brother. My situation does not fit classic Alderian theory. I was just sort of an afterthought, and left on my own. This made me excessively independent.

    • pringoooals profile image


      8 years ago from Edinburgh

      It's really interesting theory. Looking at my two daughters: the first is quite ambitious, likes to be the best in everything and always looking for our atrention, the second feels ok on her own, if is on her own doesn't really need my attention, gets involved in dofferent activities on her own, when with her sister, sometimes fights for attention. Both are quite cooperative. I am not sure how does it fit in above model.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is true


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