You see this picture? It looks like a great family memory with the dolphins, right? It definitely was a good memory for my oldest daughter (bright pink jacket) who’s mesmerized by this amazing animal, literally at her fingertips. See the contented toddler on my hip—the towhead with bows in her hair? She doesn’t need to feel the actual animal; watching the dolphins mid-air is fun enough. Which brings me to the stretching arm in turquoise—my middle daughter reaching with all her might, but to no avail. It was her actual birthday, and all she wanted to do was pet a dolphin, but, alas, no memorable dolphin experience for her.
In some ways this picture stirs major mom guilt as I think of things I could have done differently. I could have quickly put my toddler down while I hauled my middle daughter over the edge to get a feel. I could have tugged on my oldest daughter to step aside and swap places with her longing sister. It breaks my heart a little that I got to feel a dolphin and she didn’t. But goodness knows mom guilt could drive us all to the grave—or at least to excessive amounts of chocolate consumption and tears. No, this story is not about mom guilt or the beaming oldest or clingy youngest. It’s about the one reaching in the middle.
Do you have a child stuck in the middle, reaching out to you? My second daughter had five and a half years of being the youngest before her little sister booted her out. At first she was beyond thrilled to help in mothering a sweet new baby, but soon that baby started dominating things—like mom’s time and attention. Then, sweet baby started running around while ripping up her prized school papers. Next, vivacious toddler started pulling her hair on every car ride while the oldest talked nonstop about her day. Somehow the sandwich effect really started bothering my middle daughter, and she felt spread a little thin between two overbearing pieces of bread.
Now, I’m not big on labels, but when my daughter approached me holding a book called Middle Child Blues she wanted to check out from the library, I figured she had a point. I thought I was doing my best to meet everyone’s immediate needs, help with homework, praise talents, and give haphazardly-even portions of affection. But, I had two fiery bookends sirening my attention and had been overlooking some smouldering embers. The last couple of years I have figured out a few strategies to assist me in better addressing everyone’s needs:
1) Give me a break! Create opportunities for the child that is struggling to play with just one or two siblings at a time. Sometimes the everyone-together effect can exacerbate certain family dynamics (only you know what those are for your situation). Engage an older or younger child in a separate activity once in a while to take the strain off a specific relationship. On occasion, time with friends, cousins, etc. can also be a breath of fresh air.
2) Can I get some backup? Enlist dad or another caregiver. It’s a big hit at our house to go on a “mammy date” with my mom. This could be anything from picking up an ice cream and heading to the park or being the lucky one to help her get ready for a cousin party. Grandma can throw in bits of advice that aren’t as well-received when they come from mom. Just give her a heads up when someone could use a visit and what she could “mention.” Dad can save the day with a little one-on-one time as well: a quick soccer game, trip to the store, or a couple hours at the golf course works wonders at our house. For single parents, seek out those who love you and your child to help out. You are strong, but we all need a chance to regroup, refresh, and separate—your child included!
3) That’s my cue! Come up with a signal or way for your child to express how they are feeling. If my daughter is feeling a bit attention deprived, she will start to act out. Depending on the age of your child, this could be anything from being a bit temperamental or whiny to lashing out verbally or physically. After our library book experience, my daughter coined the phrase “middle child blues” to let me know she needs a little TLC. At first I was hesitant to use such a stereotype, but then I realized it was better than repeating the conversation that went something along the lines of: “You love so-and-so more than me,” or “Why do you always help so-and-so instead of me?” Now we cut to the chase and give an extra dose of affection to doctor her up.
4) It’s not fair! In families things are never fair. Yes, there can be certain rules and expectations, but chances are those will be bent according to the ages and needs of the little individuals running around your house. Though it’s tempting to pop the reality bubble with the classic “life is not fair” tagline, try explaining that you did the same for them when they were young too (e.g., extra help, more chances, less responsibilities, etc.). Or, try the rationale that in your family everything may not look/seem fair, but everyone will get what they need instead.
5) Lighten things up! One day, middle daughter and I were talking about the story of the three bears and quite randomly turned it into a family game. We started coming up with adjectives to describe the other siblings, “She’s too speedy, she’s too relaxy, and I’m just right” or “She’s so tall, she’s so short, I’m just right.” I was super nervous when this was excitedly shared with my oldest child, but—bless her—she had a total sense of humor about it. Now we have all kinds of adjectives for everyone: she’s too spicy, she’s too sweet, I’m just the right flavor, etc. Totally silly, but somehow it’s made for a fun family joke. Find a fun way to help your children know that they have different, valuable strengths and talents, just make sure it’s not at another’s expense.
6) Give a little! The other night after a late bedtime, my daughter came in to snuggle with me. At first I was annoyed, but I scooted over and chatted a little about the day and stroked her hair and enjoyed her curled up there for the moment. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make a small difference.
We may not be encountering dolphins again anytime soon, but in the meantime, I can help make sure her reach for my attention—my heart—doesn’t grasp in vain.
QUESTION: How do family dynamics or birth order in your house create waves for certain children?
CHALLENGE: Think of a couple of ways you can implement these suggestions and offer a little more attention when needed.
Edited by Becky Fawcett and Sarah Monson.
Image provided by author; graphics by Julie Finlayson.