Oldest Child Syndrome

I am not huge on birth order theory, but now that my two best friends and I all have a bunch of boys, it seems clear that there really is something to the Firstborn Syndrome!

Perhaps you’ve seen it. You try so hard to do everything right with your firstborn, from the moment you find out you’re pregnant to all the crafts and classes they should experience when they’re three. You’ve prided yourself on having the right philosophy, suffering for doing good, making the transition from Non-Mom to Mom, and all of a sudden baby #2 comes along or your first starts meeting with playmates and it dawns on you…

My little one can’t share!

They also can’t wait their turn, let anyone else have the new toy, let anyone else have fun with the old toys, make the louder siren sounds, eat a cracker they don’t have, or generally avoid competition over everything. “Me First, Me Best, Me Most” is the name of the game. Jealousy and suspicion run high. But you’re not that way! That’s not what you modeled! What went wrong?

The problem is that your child is not able to Do Unto Others yet. He is not able to look at your behavior and think to himself, “That’s what Mom does with me. That’s what I should do with others.” That is too hard for even most teenagers to realize, let alone your three year old. Your firstborn is used to getting things first, best, and most because there’s never been anyone else to compete with. And assuming that YOU don’t act like a three year old =) how is he to know what other three year olds are going to expect from him?

I’ve had a tough time with this myself because our children are spaced closely together. And even though I have four small ones, my oldest is still the handful, still the one I am always correcting, and still the one I worry about most… Is he ever going to get it? I could never figure out why he had Firstborn Syndrome so badly when he had another sibling come along so early in life (by 15 months old). But now I realize that acquiring a sibling early in life as a toddler still cannot compete with growing up with others from Day One. When a person is born into life with others around that Mommy has to take care of, pay attention to, help, discipline, etc., it is truly a whole other experience. That is why subsequent children are critically different in the area of recognizing the role of others in their lives. They may be Type A personalities, fun, extraverted, bossy, or all kinds of other go-getting traits, but they will not be as socially/emotionally misunderstood as your Firstborn feels when he/she initially encounters significant others in their lives.

So how can you help this?

It can be hard, especially if you’re one of those moms who really tried to do everything right. You’ve respected your little baby, toddler, preschooler, and now they aren’t able to respect anyone else. You have to start turning their worldview around, slowly, from The World Exists for Me, to I am a Special Part of the World. In particular, you need to gently start inserting age-appropriate boundaries between them, you, and what they want. When they learn that not all words, toys, opportunities, and Mommy space is for them, but they have their own turns for attention, they will start balancing out. Make it a project for the year to raise consciousness about how they are making other people feel around them. Here are some things I’ve tried at home:

1. Make your firstborn talk to other children. Firstborns are notoriously grown-up oriented. They seem to ignore other children at times because grown-ups give out more praise and attention. So they interfere with other parent’s playtimes at the playground, take over your adult friends when they visit the house, and ask about what you said or did with everyone else. Some grown-up attention is warranted, of course, but the better strategy is to redirect your Leading Actor from talking to adults to talking to any children who are around, even babies. In our home, my firstborn wants to tell me everything from the dream he dreamed last night to the new word he just read to how his shirt is tickling his arm. Rather than try to teach him which things are important to talk about, I have switched to smiling and saying, “That’s interesting. Tell your brother (sister) about it.” His siblings are usually interested anyway! And it gets him out of the seek-Mommy-for-attention mode and into realism… his siblings usually don’t praise every achievement or coo over every wound.

Try this approach at the playground if your child is a drama queen or in your house when showing off behavior comes. Encourage your child even to talk to babies, whom they usually ignore because babies give no acknowledgment whatsoever. But it is healthy for your firstborn to adjust to a peer-centered world because it helps them get perspective (without guilt).

2. Adopt boundaries when you are talking or doing something with others. If your child, like mine, is all ears for every conversation in the house, adopt some nice maxim to let them know where their ears or input are not wanted. Sometimes I ask my firstborn, “Who is Mommy talking to?” when he wants to answer or comment on what I’m saying to a sibling. Or I say, “It’s between Mommy and Daddy” when my firstborn wants to ask or comment on what I told Daddy. If he persists, I say “Honey, Mommy is not going to talk about this with you.” or something slightly firmer. But always in a nice way… don’t foster bitterness.

3. Utilize time-out for real showing off behavior. When your firstborn has just a learned a new skill, any visitor becomes a prime audience. A little bit is ok, but if your four year old daughter is still plie-ing over your guests after about five minutes, or your kindergartner starts reading Green Eggs and Ham aloud for a second time, tell them they are wonderful but grown-ups are here to talk to grown-ups.  If they are truly interested in ballet and reading, they will happily move to a different room to do it.  If it is showing off, they will be upset.  Then the choice is: stay here and be quiet, or go to a different room and play.  No leeway.

4.  Have them look at the face of the offended party. When a young child hurts or rejects another child, they usually look at the ground. Or they go on their way as if nothing happened.  Don’t ever let them hurt someone else, even a baby, without stopping to pay proper attention.  Have them look at the face of the person with whom they ignored, stepped on, or stole from (or refused to share with), and go through a small dialogue about how they feel… “David, look at Matty. You hurt his feelings. See how he’s sad? He wanted to play trucks with you.”

5. Don’t ASK them questions like, “Don’t you want to share with Matty?” The answer is obviously no. Just gently command that they do so. “You should share with Matty. That’s the right thing to do. Come on, give him one of your trucks.” In my own house, assuming that my firstborn has more than one of his beloved item, if he can’t surrender one of them, he has to give all of them to me. But if this makes him happy, because it is out of spite, then I make him give them all to the other child for a short while. Only then can the child experience the pull that his toys (unreasonably) have on him. He has to learn that people’s feelings come first, that they trump that pull. If I do this with respect (not asking him to share something if it is brand new, or he just started playing with it, or only has one, etc.), then his conscience gets trained. He can try again later with the warning that he has to share his stuff.

Some people wonder about “forced” sharing.  It doesn’t make rational sense that making a kid share would cause them to want to.  But like all things with little kids, you can’t wait until they FEEL like sharing to share.  Some kids are sharers by nature, and this is wonderful.  But for those covetous ones who aren’t, the best way to get it in there is practice, practice.  If you start at 2 or 3, you’ll be surprised by the end of the year that they’ll probably get it.  A 4 or 5 year old starting can take longer.

6. Don’t foster possessiveness. Firstborns are notorious for feeling like others are invaders on their turf… they are using their cup, their slide, going to their school.  One way to help this is to try to avoid addictions or attachments altogether. I try not to let my oldest become addicted to anything that would make sharing harder than it is. No favorite cups, colors, toys, or foods. He has them, I mean, but I don’t cater to them… buying him MORE Lightning McQueen accessories, getting him his own personal dinnerware, or letting him carry around his Matchbox cars all day. This is almost anti-American =)  For my other kids, these basic things would probably be harmless. But for my firstborn, it just encourages possessiveness.

Also, watch your pronouns.  Try not to say “your” or “yours” unless it really is theirs, like their shoes, their hands, etc.  Don’t be weird, I mean, but use “the” or “our” for things which are collective property, especially movies, computers, furniture, toys, etc.  This will help enormously when you need to use something or another sibling/guest comes along.  It is important for little kids to know what things they need to protect anyway, and what things aren’t appropriate to share versus those that are.

7. Don’t allow upstaging or interruption. My oldest likes to talk louder so everyone can hear him, point out his own accomplishments…especially when a younger sibling is working hard on something he can already do, and race to sit by me if he sees someone else coming to get a spot. Gently, I expose his motives that he’s trying to keep someone else from getting attention, praise, or a space, and that other people need those things too. “Taking turns” seems to be the most helpful metaphor because that implies that he gets attention too, but just not at the same moment. (i.e. “Let Sally have her turn telling Mommy about the train, and then you can.”)  Personally, I believe it is ok to help older children learn the rule of letting younger children get what they want first, although there are some situations or children where it is not wise.

8. Give opportunities to help others and get praise for it. My firstborn is a natural director, so sometimes I give him service jobs that channel his controlling nature into something good. I look for things that he likes to do, that need to be done, and that the recipient benefits from, i.e. helping his little sister get her sandals on, going to see if the car is clean, teaching his brother the letter sounds.   This helps him see constructive uses for his personality but also practice seeing others’ needs. I try not to overpraise him for his work as much as play up how happy he made the recipient… “See her face? She is so happy that you got her shoes on! Now she can go play!”

9. Model sharing with him, in games if necessary.  Play turn-taking games, card games, or other exercises where you switch things.  Lots of little kids are really hesitant to let things go—their hands are always poised ready to grab—and this is something that needs practice.  You should do it one-on-one with him until he is sharing with you well… until he gets that with someone he loves, and can trust the sharing process, he won’t do it with others (who are not as trustworthy!)

10.  Put the shoe on the other foot in training exercises… Show him how it feels to be ignored, upstaged, taken from, beaten in a race, etc. Never ever be cruel, but consider some low-key narrated example for your little firstborn to actually feel bested so they can gain empathy for those they are besting. The best way to do this is to artificially replay the scenario that just happened, either with you playing the part your firstborn played and him playing the victim.  Or you can reenact with the two original parties in slow motion, narrating what happened.  You can have the parties switch positions as actors if necessary.  The point is not to enact revenge but to slow down and rehearse a situation that comes up a lot.

11.  Make him do the giving in normal situations. Make him give things to a cashier, take items upstairs to Daddy, give the baby his bottle, etc.  This makes letting go seem more natural.

12. Adopt some maxim you can use often like, “Let’s look at everybody” or “Think of others” whenever these situations come up. A 4 or 5 year old is definitely able to get the picture if you are saying this often, and while they probably can’t change their behavior on the spot, it will be planted in the back of their minds for later.

13. Community service or talking about giving things to others can go a long way too. Talking through how we give clothes away that we don’t need, making a casserole for a friend who had a baby, letting our neighbor borrow our CD, or wrapping up Christmas presents for kids who don’t have any, shows that giving is an easy, natural, and pleasant thing. All kids need to see this, and your firstborns most. Talking about all kinds of generous behavior as much as possible will give them the extra tools they need to internalize that type of message.

14.  Most Important: Make sure you are truly meeting your firstborn’s needs for love, possessions, and attention. Especially with siblings and playdates, they may legitimately feel lacking.  Or they may be scared of letting go of your attention, or of the position where they have the most attention by default.  Also, it is easy to fall into giving your child passive attention but not active.  Preschoolers and Kindergartners really need active talking with you where they knows you are paying specific attention and not needing to leave for some reason.  When you are confident that their love tanks are full, then you can be confident (and calm) during corrective activities.

11 thoughts on “Oldest Child Syndrome

  1. I just found your site, and I love this post! We had a 17 month old when our triplets were born… the girls are now 3.5 and 2, and so much of what you’ve said regarding the firstborn is right on. I will be trying out some of these suggestions in the days to come. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for posting this! My oldest, 4, was only 14 mo. when little sister came along. Now we have a third (boy). Our oldest is wonderful, brilliant, thoughtful and hardworking….but also possessive, overly particular, slightly obsessive and really has a hard time being truly happy for his sister’s accomplishments. I can tell he FEELS like he fails us a lot, but he doesn’t. It’s emotionally hard. I’m learning and applying what I can! Thanks for the ideas.

  3. Heh a word of caution about applying this particular stereotype to firstborns! I’m the eldest in my family, less than 14 months older than the second, my sister. I can’t even remember a time alone with my parents when my sister wasn’t around; she’s part of my earliest memories. To this day my sister is hugely competitive when it comes to me, always obsessed with the need to prove herself and act out to get more attention than me, to show that she can always do things better than me. When we were growing up she was constantly showing off, putting me down and competing with me for our parents’ affections. Now that we are both adults it seems to has become worse; she’s very bossy and always trying to ‘one-up’ me. To make matters worse, to this day my parents always come down hardest on me, have strict expectations of me being responsible and taking care of the others, and they NEVER let me get away with anything. I was always given less affection and always made to work harder and sacrifice things because I had to “give in to my younger siblings”. And I have built up a lot of resentment because of this treatment. To this day it affects my relationships with my family members!

  4. I honestly do NOT think that some of these ideas work. I am an oldest child and can honestly say that I hate to share and LOVE competition. My friends say that I am borderline obsessed with competition and the thought of trying on of the ideas on me makes my skin crawl and it makes me want to throw up. Try thinking about it from the kids point of view. Try having something you genuinely love be taken from you and given to another kid because you wouldn’t share it. If your sibling didn’t have a job because they didn’t try would you give them your paycheck. No i doubt you would. All of these things could hurt a kid so bad .

  5. As an older child Whose parents did everything you mentioned my advice to parents would be to ignore your advice entirely. Older children are children NOT substitute parents. They should be encoraged to act like children and there is no way in hell that any parents should be seen to reprimand the older child more than the younger-as the youger children will notice and deliberately lie their way into getting the older child in trouble.

  6. I think birth order only matters so much. For instance my family is Indian so as the daughters of the family my sister and I Were expected to share in the household chores from a very young age and look after all of our younger siblings. As my sister was better looking than me as per Indian standards (lighter skin and hair and thinner body) she had more value than me and so even though I was the eldest I was pretty much ignored as a child and left to my own devices. In fact the only time I was even noticed was when i acted or was perceived to be acting out. Even now thirty years on my parents are not as emotionally invested in my life as they are in my siblings’ but I view that as a positive because i was allowed much more freedom as a result.

  7. My 7 yr old fits this article to a ‘t’… I will deff try these suggestions.. But why do i feel i have a problem child on my hands?..anybody else feel the same?..do they tend to grow out of this stage soon?

  8. I agree with Angel, this is definitely the case with my oldest. Although I feel as if he is slowly but surely growing out of it with age. I have tried a couple of things on this list but will definitely be implementing a few more. Jen.

  9. I am a second kid, and have a older sister. she has a strong character, and I remember that when I was a kid, I felt overpowered on several occasions.
    Such situations need tobe corrected by the parents

    strength need to be nurtured, but also cooperation and compassion for the younger one🙂

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