Does your position in your family affect your personality?

Before addressing the question of whether a person’s position in their family affects their personality, Claire Byrne wanted to make sure that Dr Ann-Marie Creaven from the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick and the specialist in mental health, Dr. Harry Barry, stated where they came from in their respective families. Just to make sure he was there.

Thus, Ann-Marie is a firstborn, Harry is a secondborn, and Claire herself declares her status as a middle child (she is one of six children). With everything above the board, the discussion continued.

Harry noted some similarities between his patients over the years and where they came from in their families:

“There will always be subtle differences from family to family, but it’s amazingly consistent to see that the same patterns will continue to play out over and over again. And I think, you know, even with changing demographics and smaller families and all that stuff, we’re still gonna see a lot of evidence of those characteristics coming up, so that’s a really big topic and actually, you know, joking aside, it actually impacts our future life and how our relationships will be and even our mental health.”

Ann-Marie pointed out that the way parents tend to raise their children can vary greatly from one first child to the next:

“Children born later in large families, one study found, are at greater risk of hospitalization for preventable injuries, possibly because parental attention is stretched a bit more. And other research suggests that parents have more communication with firstborns about sex and relationships because for younger siblings, their older siblings sometimes take on some of that.”

And an even more consistent parenting pattern tends to emerge when eating behavior is examined. Where you come from in your family can make a big difference in the type of foods you are exposed to from an early age, as Ann-Marie explains:

“I’m sure for the first born a lot of us can identify, you know, you steam organic broccoli and you blitz it and you freeze it and you do all these things and I’m sure Claire in your house near the time you got to number six, maybe, you know, maybe a bowl of cereal for dinner was okay on some days, so there are differences in eating habits based on your birth order.

Of course, as a firstborn, Ann-Marie is likely to understand what Harry has to say about the characteristics of the child that sets a precedent in a household and teaches parents how to be parents:

“They obviously get their parents’ full attention from day one. They’re very interesting because they’re actually the ones who are going to break the mould. They’re going to be more organized, they’re going to be very responsible a lot of times, they feel that they have to do more, their parents expect them to take care of their future siblings.”

Being firstborn can also come with other expectations, not all of which are obvious or necessarily welcome:

“As the parents get older, there’s this slight almost pressure on the older ones or the firstborns to take care of them.”

Firstborns usually mean first-time parents, Ann-Marie points out, and that’s why organic steamed broccoli tends not to catch on when other kids come on the scene.

This is also why younger siblings often have an easier time than firstborns when it comes to parental discipline:

“The first child in a family is the first time parents become parents, so it’s the only time they focus on a specific child. So it’s really them learning how to be parents, and then they have tendency – and studies show this – to be a little more relaxed with the next children coming in. But of course that doesn’t mean that children of different birth orders have different personalities, it just means that they are raised in a slightly different way.

So your fondness for terracotta armadillos isn’t really because you’re the fourth of five children, it’s just a result of how you were raised. But at least you’ll likely be spared the caretaking roles that can be thrust upon many firstborns. Anne Marie:

“The first child can also see parents caring for younger siblings and is more exposed, I guess, to caregiving roles. So sometimes we see the expectations of caregiving roles for firstborns in terms of of caregiving roles later. But I will say now in defense of younger siblings, that simply because of their age, younger siblings are less likely to have children of their own and often because from that, they can be expected to fill caregiving roles that they didn’t sign up for and that aren’t necessarily part of their life plan, so it can work that way too.”

The story gets more complicated when it comes to adopted children, blended families (how does it work when you are the eldest in your original family, but the second eldest in your new family?) and twins, firstborn triplets, etc.

You can hear Harry and Ann-Marie’s take on those storylines, as well as the rest of the discussion, by listening above.

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