Why Do First Born Children Tend to Suffer More?
The phenomenon of firstborn children seeming to “suffer” more than their younger siblings is one that has been observed and studied by psychologists, sociologists, and parents alike. While the degree to which firstborns suffer varies greatly on a case-by-case basis, there do appear to be some common trends and explanations for why oldest children tend to face unique challenges and pressures.
The Loss of Parental Attention
One of the most frequently cited culprits in firstborn angst is the shift in parental attention that occurs with the birth of a second child. Prior to that, the firstborn child is often the sole focus of the parents’ time, energy, and affection.
With the arrival of a new baby, the firstborn suddenly has to share that attention and devotion. This can be an extremely difficult transition, even if the parents try their best to be fair and loving to both children. The firstborn goes from being an “only” child who has their parents all to themselves, to having to compete for attention.
Some firstborns adjust well to this change over time, but many struggle. It is not uncommon to see firstborn children regress in certain skills, act out, or withdraw in response to the new family dynamic. They may see the baby as an unwelcome rival.
Higher Parental Expectations
Another burden firstborns tend to carry is that of greater parental expectations and pressure to succeed. As novice parents, first-time moms and dads are often highly invested in their first child meeting developmental milestones early, demonstrating talents and intelligence, and overall being a “model” child.
These perfectionistic expectations can be stressful for a firstborn child, who senses they have to live up to their parents’ stringent standards. Younger siblings often benefit from parents’ more relaxed approach – having learned from experience that kids develop at their own pace and cannot be forced.
More Household Responsibilities
Firstborn children frequently end up with greater household responsibilities as well. Once younger siblings arrive, parents often start assigning chores and caretaking duties to the older child. Firstborns may be asked to assist with diaper changing, bottle feeding, entertaining, or looking after younger siblings. While learning responsibility can be positive, too much too soon can overwhelm kids.
A Built-In Supervisory Role
Along with more responsibilities, firstborns are also often required to step into an impromptu supervisory or quasi-parental role in relation to their younger sister(s) or brother(s). Parents expect oldest kids to set a good example in behavior, self-control, and following rules. This means firstborns model more restraint and self-regulation from an early age.
It also means more blame and correction from parents when things go wrong. Even if a younger sibling caused trouble, parents tend to hold the oldest child accountable for allowing it to happen or not preventing it. This builds up a form of parental resentment in some firstborns.
Less Flexibility in Personality & Interests
Since firstborn children spend their earliest years as only children, some psychologists believe they have less flexibility to develop different interests and personality traits separate from their parents.
Firstborns’ sense of self is shaped predominantly by interactions with mom and dad in those formative toddler and preschool years. Younger kids benefit from older siblings exposing them to new activities, ideas, and ways of thinking outside just mimicking their parents.
Higher Anxiety & Cautiousness
Related to high expectations, firstborn children also tend to develop higher anxiety and cautiousness around making mistakes. Since they are often reprimanded more strictly for misbehavior or errors, oldest children can become perfectionists afraid of triggering parental disapproval. This can inhibit their willingness to try new challenges.
Younger children usually have more freedom to explore, take risks, and make mistakes without extreme consequences. This helps them become less inhibited in their desires to attempt new things as they grow.
Less Parental Patience
As nearly any firstborn child can attest, parents tend to have far less patience with their first kid than their fourth, fifth, or sixth! After coping with volatile toddler tantrums, talking back, and potty training with a firstborn, most parents are much more relaxed and laid back by the time subsequent kids come along.
Firstborns are subjected to the brunt of parental inexperience and naivete around child-rearing. Later-born kids benefit from a more seasoned, wise, and tolerant approach.
Less Natural Talent in Social Skills
While not a universal truth, some firstborns struggle more with social interactions and fitting in with peers. Since they spend so much early time alone or only with adults, oldest children have fewer opportunities to hone social skills. Plus their cautiousness and perfectionism can inhibit social confidence.
Younger children learn a lot about relationships, compromise, and reading social cues from older siblings. This can give them a leg up in peer interactions.
Questions About Fairness & Favoritism
Firstborn kids are also far more likely to wrestle with perceptions of unequal treatment or favoritism compared to their younger siblings. They may dwell on who got the bigger dessert, later curfew, or extra money from Mom and Dad.
Even small differences in discipline and rewards between the oldest vs. youngest can breed resentment. While parents take pains to appear “fair,” firstborns often carry a grudge over any area where siblings seem favored.
Carrying the Burden of Legacy
For children born into prominent, successful, or dynastic families, being the oldest also often comes with pressure to carry on the family legacy or excel even more than their parents. Firstborns in famous acting or political clans, for example, speak of overwhelming expectations to match or surpass their parents’ career heights and status.
While younger kids certainly experience pressure too, the bulk tends to fall more heavily on firstborn shoulders – along with being named after esteemed ancestors in many cultures. Oldest children can crumple under the weight of living up to larger-than-life legacies.
Less Leniency in Adolescence
The disparity between how firstborns vs. later-borns are treated often becomes most apparent in the teen years. As the first teenager in the home, oldest children tend to have earlier curfews, more strict rules, and just overall less leniency in adolescence.
Younger teens seem to get away with a lot more freedom, independence, and maturity as parents become accustomed to adolescent behavior. This can breed deep resentment and enviousness in firstborn kids who endure the most restrictive treatment just because of their birth order.
Greater Pressure to Conform
Psychologists have noted that firstborn children face much stronger pressure from parents to conform to rules, norms, and expectations dictated by authority figures. Parents anxious for their first child to succeed often emphasize obedience and compliance with the status quo.
On the other hand, later-borns receive more encouragement to question rules, think independently, take risks, and forge their own path. Younger children are often less concerned with pleasing their parents versus following their inner voice.
Higher Parental Investment in Education
It is very common for parents to be extremely invested and involved in their firstborn child’s education. They may obsess over the firstborn getting straight A’s, taking advanced classes, participating in multiple extracurricular activities, getting into a top college, and pursuing a lucrative career.
Educational perfectionism can be isolating and exhausting for firstborns. Later-borns tend to have more breathing room to find their own academic path without constant judging of grades and long-term outcomes. Parents are often worn down and less nitpicky by the time subsequent kids reach middle and high school.
Less Indulgence & Fun
In general, parents also tend to be less indulgent with firstborns when it comes to just having fun. Later-born children are more frequently treated to special trips, toys, adventures, and outdoor exploration from a young age. Parents delight in showing younger kids the world through rose-colored glasses.
Firstborns usually endure a more restrictive, disciplined, and academically-focused upbringing with less time for pure enjoyment. Parents worry more about proper development when it’s their first child. This breeds resentment in rule-abiding firstborns who witness the fun freedoms younger siblings experience.
Greater Responsibility Without Power
A common dynamic is that firstborns bear a lot of responsibility and expectations, without much authority or decision-making power. For example, a firstborn may be assigned to help with raising younger siblings, without any choice in the matter. Or they may face blame for not preventing a problem their sibling caused.
Younger children often benefit from some authority over key life choices like friends, clothes, hobbies, etc. Parents grant them autonomy firstborns never experienced. This magnifies the frustrations of being an overburdened, powerless oldest child.
Higher Parental Anxiety About Health & Safety
Ask any firstborn child, and they will likely tell stories of overprotective parents utterly panicked about their safety and health. First-time parents are often hypervigilant about risks, germs, injuries, allergies, and medical problems affecting their oldest child.
By baby #4, parents let kids climb trees, ride bikes without helmets, and eat handfuls of dirt without intervention. Firstborns resentfully recall the irrational lengths their folks went to shield them from potential harm, small and large.
An Upbringing More Serious Than Carefree
Taken together, these dynamics culminate in a more serious, structured, and pressured childhood for many firstborn kids compared to their younger siblings. The combination of high expectations, overprotection, duty, and rigid rules results in an uptight upbringing versus a carefree one.
Firstborns often look back with envy at the freewheeling joy and independence their youngest siblings enjoyed thanks simply to later birth order. The discrepancy between their own disciplined, anxious childhood and their siblings’ fun-filled ones breeds deep discontentment for many firstborns.
Difficulty Grasping Their Parents’ Evolution
Finally, one significant challenge firstborns wrestle with is difficulty understanding their parents’ evolution over time. Parents naturally change as they gain parenting experience – ideally growing wiser, more relaxed, more insightful, less judgmental, and more accepting.
But firstborn kids only knew the rigid, inexperienced, high-strung early version of mom and dad. The parents’ later-born kids encountered the mature, mellow, nuanced later version. Firstborns struggle to grasp this changed dynamic. They only saw their parents’ flaws, not the personal growth.
In looking at all these factors – from loss of attention, to greater responsibilities, to higher expectations, to decreased parental patience and leniency over time – it becomes understandable why oldest children appear to “suffer” disproportionately.
Through no fault of their own, firstborns tend to face greater pressures, discipline, loneliness, and burdens simply based on their birth order. Parents are hardest on the kids they practice on – their eldest sons and daughters.
While positive traits like independence, competence, and leadership skills can also result from being the oldest, there are unique challenges that can breed resentment. Understanding the roots of common frustrations firstborns face can help parents be more mindful about nurturing their sensitive, capable oldest children.
With mindfulness, empathy, and conscientious parenting, families can ensure their firstborns do not feel an disproportionate brunt of responsibility, loneliness, or unfairness. While each child needs customized care, oldest children tend to need extra compassion given their “guinea pig” role in families. By anticipating the vulnerabilities of firstborns, parents can take proactive steps to make sure each child feels valued.