Was this a cry for help? My younger son defaced a coloring book that was given to his big brother as a gift years ago. The coloring book is called What Does Liam Want to Be? and on every page, there is an illustrated version of my older son dressed as a different professional—a scientist, a chef, etc. My younger son scratched out his brother’s name on every page and wrote his name, “GRAHAM,” in big letters.
My second-born has gotten the short end of the stick so many times. I should’ve done better. I’m a secondborn myself. I had no baby book and always got hand-me-downs. I’m sure I suffered from second child syndrome, which is when a child feels ignored or like he or she continually gets shorted because of a sibling. Based on the name, you might think second child syndrome is exclusive to second or middle children, but a first-born can show signs as well. Here are 3 to be on the lookout for and ways to change the dynamic.
1. Low Self-Esteem and Jealousy
We’ve all seen it play out either in our own family or on TV. Marcia Brady, anyone? It’s so hard not to compare your children when so much of life is replicated from one child to the next. They play with the same toys, often have the same teachers, and play the same sports. Usually, it’s the younger who suffers from low self-esteem because of comparison, but sometimes older children feel inadequate because a younger sibling is better at something even though the older kids have had more time to master it.
As a result, the child who feels less-than might avoid competition to keep from being compared, purposely rebel in an effort to differentiate him or herself, or become angry and bitter toward the sibling who is getting all the accolades.
Change the dynamic by…
• purposely including the child in conversations by asking him or her direct questions.
• avoiding words that compare your kids to one another.
• explaining that God has given everyone gifts, talents, and ways of learning. Chances are your child with second child syndrome already knows this, but hearing it come from you will show him or her that you know it too and that’ll remove some of the pressure.
2. Lack of Direction
I’ve seen this in my son in that his motivation and initiative are somewhat lacking. My older son has created two “businesses” in an effort to earn money to buy an iPad. The younger couldn’t care less that his screen is cracked. I have to ask myself: Is their differing level of initiative a result of the enthusiasm and support I’ve shown or not shown? Or is that entrepreneurial spirit just not a gift my younger son has been given, regardless of my behavior?
Because parents don’t gush over every moment, a kid with second child syndrome doesn’t think his or her efforts are worthwhile. This might be the toughest one for parents to try to avoid because the cause is a natural part of life. When things aren’t new to you, you typically don’t need to dedicate as much energy to them. Your fourth child’s kindergarten graduation is still a precious moment, but it’s also your fourth kindergarten graduation. You’ve got it down pat by then and it doesn’t take over the household.
Change the dynamic by…
• randomly picking a piece of your “forgotten child’s” art and framing it.
• going out for ice cream and talking about ways you’ve seen his or her hard work pay off.
• running with the idea when you hear him or her express a glimmer of inspiration to do or try something.
• praying for the desire and enthusiasm to dedicate the same energy to each child.
3. Low Expectations for Themselves
My sister went to college several states away. My parents pushed her to venture out. She made it through four years, but not without a lot of struggles and tears. When it came time for me to apply to colleges, my parents had changed their tune and fully supported if not urged me to stay closer to home. I didn’t know the reason at the time, so I took it to mean they didn’t think I could handle it.
Similar to a lack of direction, a child with second child syndrome might have low expectations for him or herself because he doesn’t think anyone is holding him accountable or challenging him to step up. While that might be the case (Parents are tired!), it might also be that parents have learned a lesson from one child and are parenting differently.
A child with second child syndrome might have low expectations for him or herself because he doesn’t think anyone is holding him accountable or challenging him to step up.
Change the dynamic by…
• using words of praise and encouragement that are unique to that child.
• helping set goals and celebrating milestones.
• talking openly to kids who are old enough to understand why you’re parenting them differently than a sibling. Avoid talking about your expectations because that can bring on feelings of disappointment and shame, but talk about where their gifting and interests might lead them.
Have you seen second child syndrome in any of your kids? What do you do to help a child who feels ignored or unseen?