Birth Order and Family Constellation

Adler (1927/1946, 1964) used the term family constellation as a structure to describe each member's niche within the family system. He noted that the family constellation consisted of parents, children, and any extended family members. Adler emphasized that birth order in this constellation influences a person's lifestyle choices. Within the constellation, a child defines self in relation to other children and how the self is different from or the same as others in the family. For example, the parent a child aligns with affects the child's interpretation of his or her position in the family constellation. The child's position in the family can also be defined by how the child addresses family values; what techniques are used to negotiate dynamics within the constellation; how the members of the constellation handle the impact of culture, age, and gender differences; and how the demands of school and society are handled within the system.

Birth order for children and each of the siblings, the gender of siblings, and age differences between siblings are all variables of the family constellation (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). The family atmosphere is, therefore, a commonly shared experience for a child as well as others in the child's family environment. It is where an individual learns how to interact with others. Behavior in other parts of an individual's world often reflects that individual's position and reactions within a family. Because most behaviors are carried from the home into the community environment, understanding the role of the family in a person's life is important.

The impact of birth order on development is not a rigid schema but rather is a subjective interpretation of an individual's family position. A counselor needs to understand a person's subjective thoughts and feelings about his or her birth position in the family. Adler (1927/1946) described five basic birth order positions: the only child, the oldest child, the second of only two children, the middle child, and the youngest child. Implicit in the descriptors is that as a child is added to the family, the total family system changes in its behaviors and behavioral cues.

Only Children

Parents have a strong influence on only children's early development. Adler believed that because only children never have to share attention or feel replaced by another sibling, they may not learn how to cooperate with other children. During the majority of their development, they are surrounded by adults, so only children easily identify with adults and soon learn adult language. Only children are more inclined to be high achievers and conscientious. They are very interested in perpetuating family values. Only children are more likely to be pampered because of parents' focused attention on the only child. However, if parents are demanding and abusive, only children have to bear the abuse alone.

When parents are very capable, an only child may feel unable to compete at the parents' level, and the child may become discouraged. When parents are doting and provide for every need and want, the only child may become helpless and unable to provide for what he or she needs and wants as an adult. As an example, Susan, an only child, was worshiped by her parents and grandparents. At the age of 35, Susan still lived alternately between her mother or grandparents. She did not have a job. Although Susan had attempted twice to find a job, she felt that others did not understand her needs.

Oldest Children

Both the only and the oldest child have all of their parents' attention. The first child in the family is, in essence, an only child receiving all of the attention. According to Ansbacher and Ansbacher (1959), Adler believed that the oldest or firstborn child would be loved and nurtured in a certain pattern of behavior by the parents until the second child arrives. Adler found that the oldest may be more likely to become a problem child because of the change in the family constellation. If there were three or more children in the family, the oldest may act precocious, conservative, or introverted, at least more so than other siblings. The oldest may also feel extremely sensitive toward and very responsible for younger siblings in the family. As a result of this perceived responsibility, firstborn children can suffer from neuroticism or substance abuse problems. The oldest also can be timid, sensitive, dependable, and seek adult approval. Like the only child, the oldest child may tend to be perfectionistic, hard working, and conscientious and wants to do things at which he or she already knows he or she can succeed.

For example, John was the firstborn in his family, and he battled for attention and his perceived loss of position after the birth of his siblings. He felt he was no longer the center of attention. Even though he was the oldest, John felt his siblings got all of the attention, and at times, John would attempt to act like the baby. At other times, he was disobedient and would withdraw when his parents would tell him to grow up and take care of his siblings. As John grew older, he became very responsible, taking on more and more responsibilities until he was acting as a parent at times. His siblings began to look to John for direction and guidance. As an adolescent, John got a part-time job and even quit school to contribute to his family's needs. John developed into an extremely hard worker, and he had very few friends and a meager social life.

Second Bom

The second child is subjected to a very different set of circumstances from the first (Ellenberger, 1970). Adler believed that the second child may react in a competitive way, seeing the first child as a pacesetter (Sulloway, 1995). At times the second child is successful in the competition, but many second children act as if the competition is never done. This constant competition affects each child's lifestyle. While the first child has a period of time when the parent's attention is not shared with another child, the second will always have to share the attention. A second child of only two children is extremely focused on the older sibling. In fact, the older child can have more influence on the second child than the parents. In the majority of families, the second child of only two may work at being opposite of whatever he or she perceives the first to be. With two children, the older child is usually more advanced, and if the older child is more successful, the second child may be easily discouraged and may react very differently in similar situations to lessen the discouragement that might come with direct competition.

An example of this is Beth, the second child in the family who always felt that even if she was smart there was no way she could be as smart as Keith, her older brother. Even though Beth excelled in school in both academics and sports, she chose to focus all of her efforts on sports. She was involved in basketball, baseball, and gymnastics and played tennis with her parents. At 22, Beth began to have medical problems as a result of pushing herself in sports. She turned to the use of prescriptions drugs. When asked about some of the choices she was making, such as not taking care of herself and using drugs, Beth replied by saying, “I have to stay on the top of things. My parents expect that of me."

Middle Children

When a third child arrives in the family, a second child becomes the middle child (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). A middle child learns that he or she is caught between an oldest child who appears to be the focus and the youngest child who seems to be able to get attention for doing nothing. To a middle child, life appears unfair, and he or she believes that the oldest and youngest align together and against him or her. Such situations can leave the middle child as the focus of problems, or the first and third child simply leave the middle child out of everything. The middle child becomes sensitive to criticism and is easily angered. The middle child's alliance may go to a peer group, rebelling against family expectations and traditions. This comparison of self to others becomes a constant in life.

Another characteristic of middle children may include developing a "poor me" attitude, which can create problems (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). Or in families characterized by conflict, the middle child may become the peacemaker, trying to hold things together in the family. If there are four children in a family, the second child often feels like a middle child and the third child will be more easygoing, social, and may align with the firstborn. Consequently, the middle child may rebel as a result of feeling squeezed out. As an example, Thomas is a middle child in a family of three children who always felt squeezed out. He was very social, sometimes seeking out his peers because he felt left out in his own family. Thomas always felt he was never heard in his own family because he just did not measure up to his siblings. He always wanted to help people but was not sure he would be good at helping others.

Youngest Children

The youngest child is usually the most pampered and overindulged in a family. The placement in the family as "the baby" will never change (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). The youngest is the second most likely to be a problem, following the first child. The youngest may feel incredibly inferior because everyone in the family is older and seen as superior. Because there can be limited expectations of the youngest, he or she may go off on his or her own, which leads to egocentric behaviors. Typically, the youngest tends to be helpless and depends on the family, especially wanting parents to do things for him or her. An example is Kent, who was the youngest in his family. Both his siblings always looked out for Kent, and they succeeded at everything they set out to do. Kent felt that because his siblings succeeded, he did not need to succeed and at times he would rather not try. While youngest children can be like Kent, they can also be good observers in families and use observations to develop in areas and ways siblings will not. At times, this can lead to the youngest child surpassing siblings, becoming the most successful in the family. The youngest often concludes that he or she is either special or unwanted. The pampered youngest child feels special and is spoiled and overindulged, whereas the unwanted child feels neglected, disliked, and ignored.


Many variables can affect the family constellation, influencing how the position of oldest, second, middle, or youngest child may be interpreted in the family constellation (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1959). One variable may be the number of years between the births of the children. Families with children born 2 years apart may have different dynamics than families in which children are bom 3 or more years apart. Other factors such as gender or differences in numbers of each sex in the family can also make a difference in how the family constellation is affected (Adler, 1931). Another impact would be if a child had major illnesses. This can change the constellation. Single parents or blended families can cause variations in the meanings found in a family constellation. As with everything in Adler's system, birth order should be understood and viewed in the context of a person's own family, community, and universe. These five birth order positions and the potential patterns represent the point of view from which the child sees the world. A child's subjective interpretation is what really matters regarding birth order, not the position itself, because birth position is uniquely defined by the person.

Early Recollections

Adler (1931,1964) proposed that early recollections or remembrances are important indicators to understanding an individual. Adler regarded memories as a key phenomenon, considering the time and effort an individual uses to store and recollect memories. Recollections in and of themselves from childhood are not as important as which memories are retrieved and how a person's perception is reflected in the choice of recollections. Any childhood experiences and remembrances of those experiences may have an impact on lifestyle, but only the individual can verify the significance through the retrieving and reporting of those memories. The subjective interpretation of those memories can be used to indicate how an individual views self and others in relation to life. Remembrances provide a view into a person's subjective perceptions of his or her lifestyle. Early recollections are found to have a bearing on the central interests of a person's life. They provide hints and clues that are valuable when attempting to find direction in a person's striving. They are helpful in revealing what a person values and what is dangerous in life. In the counseling setting, a client's early remembrances can provide a counselor with important information about the client's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and how the client views the world.

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