On Being the Youngest Child
QUESTION: What information do you have on younger siblings and the hardships of growing up? I'm interested if parents make a difference between older, middle, and the youngest. I'm a college student and I'm having difficulty finding myself, and I think its because I'm the youngest.
ANSWER: This is a wonderful period in your life for self-reflection. Looking at the very roots of your unique development will no doubt be highly beneficial. Understanding yourself increases self-acceptance, which is very empowering. And examining the effects of sibling order on your personality gives you opportunity to alter your perspective independent of, rather than only predetermined by, the family culture which raised you.
It is fair to warn you that although there are certain generalizations about youngest children in family research, the findings are relatively inconclusive because other factors such as gender, size of family and economic factors may alter your experience as a youngest to a significant degree. With that said, you can decide which factors pertain to your family upbringing.
Alfred Adler, a psychologist who pioneered birth-effect order saw the youngest child as at risk for feeling greater insecurity due to a lifelong pattern of being overprotected. In the short run, youngest children are thought to enjoy this "help" but in the long run suffer from a fear of being unable to cope in the world on their own. In one college study, 25% of first borns reported nightmares, compared to 85% of last borns. While this has been interpreted to reflect a generally higher state of trepidation experienced in youngest children, it is also possible that younger children are merely more expressive of their fears and therefore more likely to report them.
Some of my clients describe their experience as the youngest to be difficult because "everyone has an opinion about what they should do". These clients often struggle with identifying their own beliefs and identity. They find that they sometimes need to exert greater effort towards the realization that their opinion about something "counts". Other youngest borns feel left out of the family, or particularly smothered by the attention and concern about their welfare by every other person in the family.
Perhaps the truest and most consistent finding is that last born children tend to be slower at accepting responsible roles, since they have not experienced being older and more capable than someone else in the family. It is easy as a youngest to question your judgment and abilities, unless of course there are other mitigating factors that help you to gain confidence in your ability to handle responsibility and making decisions.
I remember my son's experience of being the youngest as a difficult one in the first 10 years of his life. He continually tried (and even succeeded!) at doing what his older sister was doing. For example riding a tricycle 4 months earlier than she did because he watched her do it. However he often felt as though he was not doing "good enough" because he was not as capable of certain things because he was younger. He would continually ask me if he was a "midget". I assured him he was not, however he continued to question if I was "sure" that he was not a midget! Somehow he experienced conflict between how "big" he was and others in the family were. With no smaller child present to mitigate his concern, it took meeting a "real" midget (as well as growing up himself!) to finally accept his younger status as a matter of development instead of ultimate capability.
Self exploration regarding the effects of your place in your family will probably yield you the greatest insight with regard to the effects of your birth order in your particular family. Ask yourself the question, " Do you think your parents or siblings would have treated you differently if you had been born the eldest? the middle child? How so? Do you think it would have affected your personality, character or beliefs about yourself? Do you think you are treated differently than other siblings in the family now, because of your position as the youngest?
Ask other friends who are also the youngest born what their experiences are or have been. Sort of like reading an astrology forecast, you must decide in the end if any of these characteristics fit your situation. And ironically, by doing so you confront the youngest child's characteristic need to forge your own answers. But then, we all question ourselves at some point, and need to turn inwards to find our own truth and authentic identity!
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
Copyright 1996-2003. Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.