Second Child Syndrome: What it is, Why it Happens, and How to Deal With it

Second child syndrome is a phrase that we hear tossed around a lot, usually with quite a negative implication. It’s often used as a stand-in for explaining bad behaviour or an excuse for what is usually a pretty normal developmental stage. But these uses aren’t really accurate or fair to the children it is aimed at, so in this blog post, we wanted to take a step back and look at second child syndrome and explore what it actually is.

What is second child syndrome?

So what actually is Second child syndrome? Well, simply put it is a term used to describe the challenges that can arise in a family when a second child is born, regardless of any family planning matters surrounding that child. These challenges are almost exclusively experienced by the second child and can include feeling ignored by parents, having to share attention with an older sibling, and feeling like they can never measure up to their older sibling. These symptoms often amount to nothing in the long run, but if they are particularly bad and/or are left unchecked, they can lead to all sorts of mental health issues as the child grows and matures.

Why does second child syndrome happen?

There are a number of reasons why a second child may be more likely to experience second child syndrome. But the reasoning seems to fall in to three major camps:

First and foremost, they may simply not get as much attention from their parents as their older siblings did. This is because parents often feel more experienced with their second child, and this can lead to them being more relaxed about things that would have panicked or caused them to intervene previously. There is also the logic that they may be less likely to be as attentive because they are more tired and have busier lives by the time a second child arrives.

Secondly, second children are going to have to share their parents’ attention with their older siblings. This is a perfectly natural thing to experience as the first child will have been the sole focus of their parents’ attention and even with the best will in the world, double the amount of children is going to result in attention being split, even if it isn’t 50/50. The situation can be especially difficult if the older sibling is more outgoing or demanding of attention, something which can come on as a result of jealousy more easily than many parents realise. As a result, second children may feel like they can never get their parents’ full attention, and in their defence, it isn’t really possible that they are going to. Especially when compared to a first child.

Third and probably the least outwardly obvious, second children may feel like they can never measure up to their older siblings. This can be because older siblings often have more experience and skills, and have obviously done everything the second child is discovering. This creates a situation where no matter how much they learn and achieve, they can perceive themselves as permanently in their older siblings’ shadow, even if their parents and siblings do nothing to reinforce this. Parents can also, directly or indirectly, cause their elder children to be seen as something of a “golden child” in the eyes of their younger children. As a result, second children may feel like they can never be as good as their older siblings no matter how hard they try, which can lead to very damaging feelings of inferiority.

How to Deal with Second Child Syndrome

As with all childhood mental health issues, there is not always an easy or quick fix to the feelings created by second child syndrome. But there are a number of things that parents can do to help their second child cope with their feelings and emotions that can result from second child syndrome to hopefully mitigate any long-term effects. It might seem obvious, but it is important to make sure that both children get equal amounts of attention wherever possible. We know this isn’t always a practical thing to do, especially if the children have a significant age difference and require very different types of attention. However, spending time with each child individually is something that is very important for all children as it helps them feel like individuals and important to their parents.

Another thing that is simple to overlook is comparing children. This is especially easy when it comes to behaviour as a younger child is going to act in a less calm and collected way, but this is often just typical of their developmental stage. In comparison, an older child will feel more manageable and easier to deal with, but it is important to avoid comparing children to each other as it can cause negative reinforcement of these behavioural patterns. This can be difficult, particularly if you have a toddler having a tantrum and an older child calmly waiting for you to answer them, but it is important to remember that each child is unique, and they should not be compared to their siblings, particularly if it’s in a negative way.

Where possible, it is important to help children develop their own unique identities and interests. This means encouraging them to pursue their own skills and talents, and to not feel like they have to live up to their siblings’ expectations or be interested in something just because their sibling is. Just because one child is into sports doesn’t mean another will be. Or just because one has the patience to sit and draw for hours, doesn’t mean you should expect another to do the same. This may sound obvious to many parents, and honestly, it is to an extent. But we all slip into bad habits and take the path of least resistance sometimes, it’s a natural part of parenting and one we shouldn’t feel guilty about. It’s when we don’t try and minimise these times or make them the norm, that’s when we need to take a long, hard look at our parenting.

Quick Tips for Handling Second Child Syndrome:

  • As a parent, be mindful of your words and actions. Make sure that you are not inadvertently comparing your children to each other.
  • Give each child their own special time with you. This could be anything from reading a book together to going on a special outing or activity.
  • Encourage your children to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Let them know that it is okay to feel jealous or left out sometimes.
  • Help your children find ways to be successful such as encouraging them to join a sports team or take up a new hobby and show interest in their decisions.
  • Be patient and understanding. Second child syndrome can be a difficult challenge for children, parents and siblings alike, but usually, it will eventually pass.

If you are concerned that your second child (or any of your children) may be struggling with second child syndrome-like symptoms, and you feel it is getting beyond your ability to handle, please reach out to your GP or Health Visitor for advice and guidance.

Here is a quick rundown of potential signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Feeling ignored or neglected by their parents
  • Feeling jealous of their older sibling
  • Feeling like they can never measure up to their older sibling
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Acting out or misbehaving

Remember, second child syndrome is not a sign that there is something wrong with your child. It is simply a normal reaction to a particular situation and family dynamic they are in. With the right support, any child, second or otherwise, can learn to cope with their feelings and develop into a happy and healthy individual. Be patient and understanding with your child, discuss their feelings and be honest with them.

Second child syndrome is perfectly natural and something most families with multiple children will experience one way or another. There’s no need for it to become overly problematic in most cases, and ultimately is usually just a phase. Acknowledging the potential pitfalls and being there for your children as individuals as well as a family unit will hopefully help them handle their second child syndrome, deal with their feelings, and help all of you grow closer as a result.