Straight Talk Advice

Jun 24, 2014

Being youngest can make it tough to feel smart

Dear Straight Talk: I'm the youngest of five siblings with 20 years between my oldest sibling and myself. Because I am considerably younger, I sometimes feel like I don't fit. I am fairly introverted while they are outspoken, so I have trouble finding my voice. I am funny and smart, but they try to parent me and tell me what to think, do and feel. I'm 18, but they still see me as a child and not equal to them. How do I speak up for myself in such a big, loud family? —Adeline, Los Angeles

Lyric 16, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

There are positives and negatives to each birth-order “spot”. I'm the oldest of three siblings, and yes, we “oldests” get the cool things first, more freedoms, and we sometimes feel the right tell our younger siblings what to do. One of the negatives is that there's huge pressure to set a good example, even outshine the others. Although it may feel like your siblings are trying to parent and outshine you, they want you to shine as brightly.

Gregg 23, Los Angeles Ask me a question

I'm the youngest of two brothers and two cousins, all 5-9 years older than me. They are all highly educated with successful careers and interesting hobbies. Sure, I'm funny and smart around my friends, but around them? Honestly, they are way beyond me. I could feel insecure about it, and I've had moments, but it's silly. My advice: When you're around them, go with the flow — or, do what I do, ask questions and focus on learning from them. When you're not around them, be YOU! They're not creating your life, YOU ARE.

Julian 16, Napa, Calif. Ask me a question

Do you have a hobby or talent? Try communicating through it. If you play an instrument, maybe write a song about a current issue. Your siblings just want you to avoid their mistakes.

Bronwyn 15, Santa Rosa, Calif. Ask me a question

My little brother is always saying that I do everything better than he and he will never live up to my grades or play music as well. This makes me feel awful and I want to help him so he can get those good grades and play better. Please talk to your siblings about how you're feeling. They might agree that your voice is not heard enough! Ask them to help you find it by asking you questions during family time and drawing you into the conversation.

Peter 27, Monterey, Calif. Ask me a question

I can sympathize as I'm also the youngest of a whole mess of kids (Four? Five? 12? I can't remember…). My advice: Hold on! In a couple of years their perspective will shift. You'll strike out on your own or do something particularly adult-like, and they'll realize you aren't a child anymore. For now, though, humor them and accept that they care.

Dear Adeline: You are indeed smart — and a great communicator! You have articulated what many younger siblings experience. Share your feelings with a sibling you feel close to who has family pull. The effects of birth order are significant and families are wise to learn about them. Another common occurrence is that older siblings (driven by the perfectionist expectations of their birth order) dominate an array of societal niches and create family expectations that those niches are the important ones. This can leave younger siblings adrift or operating below potential. Best: Parents get to know each child and nurture their unique gifts, strengths and interests. (Caveat: Not counting video games, device gazing, and mall hopping!) I hope things improve. That said, in life, you must always be ready to water your own garden.

Suggested reading: The Birth Order Book“ by Dr. Kevin Leman.

Editor's Note: Shortly after we received this question from Adeline, I was talking to Bill, a father who shared his own wake-up call around birth order.

Bill was taking a psychology class and he volunteered to come to the front of the room where he was asked to share about his three children. He described his first son and daughter in glowing terms as they were both highly accomplished with good grades and extracurricular success. "And your youngest?" the teacher asked. Bill replied that she wasn't doing so well. She was 15, getting mediocre grades, disinterested in school and hobbies. And the teacher said, "Of course she's not interested in anything. The older kids have the 'accomplishment department' sewn up."

Children want to individualize. They are also very sensitive to what they think their parents want them to be and do. Not only do many younger children figure the "good slots" are already taken, but if they are predisposed to different accomplishments than the older siblings, they often hold back from exploring them because the praise the older kids get from the parents make them think it's those activities that the parents value. Unfortunately, this is all happening unconsciously.

Luckily for Bill and his youngest, it suddenly wasn't. Bill went home and, if I recall correctly, he and his youngest took a long drive for starters and just talked. He got to know HER, who she was. He assured her that she was JUST as valuable as the older kids. He assured her that what SHE wanted to be/do/accomplish would be nurtured and applauded just as was done for the older kids. Bill said her behavior shifted almost immediately. Here was a girl proficient at getting C's and from that point on, she never missed an A grade. She knew her father saw what was going on and saw her value.

The biggest thing kids want (even grown ones), is to be seen, known, and valued by their parents for who they are, apart from their siblings. We've focused here on younger siblings, but older and middle children have their crosses to bear, too. I hope every family reads "The Birth Order Book" (or others on the topic), and awakens to the unconscious birth-order patterns that can hold people hostage for life. It's never too late. —Lauren

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  1. By Cindy, age 14, from Sacramento, CA on 06/24/2014

    I’m 14 and have an older brother and sister.  I’m constantly compared to them and expected to meet the high standard that they have set by both our parents and by teachers.  If I have trouble with a subject in school they think I have no excuse since “your brother and sister had not problem with it.”  It’s very frustrating since I can’t just be my own person without being compared to them.  My sister is also much more attractive than I am and I constantly hear “Too bad your not as pretty as your sister.”  We share a room, so I can’t help but see how much more attractive her body is than mine when she’s nude which makes me feel even worse, and embarrassed to undress in front of my own sister.  My sister still considers me a “little kid” and thinks I’m not entitled to any privacy.  She even thinks she can walk in on me in the bathroom on the toilet since it didn’t bother me when I was younger, but it does bother me now and I’ve told her so and she came unglued one time when I was in a hurry and really needed to get in the shower and she’d been in there way too long so I came in and did my best not to even look at her, but she was furious that I “invaded her privacy” even though she thinks she can do it to me.

    Cindy

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  2. By Tammy, age 16, from Lodi, CA on 06/25/2014

    I’m the youngest of 3 girls and greatly benefitted from being the youngest, because I learned from my older sisters’ bad examples that I did NOT want to be like they are.  They had to learn things the hard way, but I learned things the easy way by seeing what happened to them.  My oldest sister got pregnant at 16 by a guy who abandoned her.  She had to drop out of school and is still on welfare and will never have a decent life, and made me realize that teenage sex is not worth it no matter how much a guy pressures you.  My middle sister got into drugs and also had a serious eating disorder.  We shared a room and having to see the wasted state of her body when she was naked literally made me sick and also made me determined not to let something like that happened to me.  I’m headed toward college, and it looks like I’m the only one of us who will be a college graduate.  Based on my experience, being the youngest is not necessarily a bad thing by any means!

    Tammy

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  3. By Debbie, age 17, from Huntinton Beach, CA on 06/27/2014

    I’m the oldest, and I can tell you that there are also many advantages to that.  Because I’m the oldest, I’m held to a much higher standard than my younger brother and sister.  They get away with all kinds of stuff, but I’m expected to be perfect because I’m older and am expected to set a good example.  I’m 17 and my twin brother and sister are 13.  Even though they’re younger and are twins, I still have to share a room with my sister since we’re girls, even though they had no problem continuing to share a room and actually preferred it that way, but our mom said they we’re to old once they became “teenagers.”  Our mom expects our room to be perfect and I’m the one who gets blamed if it’s not perfect even though my sister makes much more of a mess than I do.  However, our brother’s room is a disaster, but our mom shrugs it off since “boys will be boys.”  If she hears my sister and me arguing in our toom, I get blamed even if my sister is the one who started it, again because I’m the oldest.  Like others who have written to Straight Talk, we’re forced to share the bathroom since we only have one and all have to get ready at the same time.  I can’t even complain about not having privacy “on the facility” because our mom says I should be mature enough that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about bathroom functions and if I complain, then it would give my sister reason to complain, but if “big sister” doesn’t complain she should feel comfortable sharing the bathroom this way.  Of course our mom gets her own private time in the bathroom, and our brother obviously does as the only male in the household.

    I guess there are both advantages and disadvantages wherever you fall in the family order whether it’s oldest, youngest, or in the middle.  However, I do not agree with Adeline that the youngest necessarily has it the worst. 

    Debbie

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    1. By Samantha, age 16, from Toledo, OH on 06/28/2014

      I agree with Debbie that there are also many drawbacks to being the oldest.  It is especially true for me as the older stepsister.  Last year, I got sent to live with my dad and stepmom for reasons too complicated to go into here.  I have to share a room with my 12 year old stepsister and because of this, I have all kinds of restrictions placed on me that I didn’t have when I was with my mom and had my own room.  My stepmom forbids me to wear thong underwear because my stepsister told her mom that she wanted to wear it when she saw me wearing it, and my stepmom said that I was setting a “bad example.”  The same with nipple jewelry.  That is also forbidden, as is shaving and waxing.  Therefore, I look different than all my friends when were in situations where we see each other nude.  In the hot weather, I like to sleep in the nude.  That is also forbidden because it also supposedly sets a “bad example.”  Since we share a room, it’s unavoidable that my stepsister and I see each other nude anyway which should not be a problem since we’re both girls, so why should it matter if I’m nude under the covers!?  I could go on and on about the drawbacks about being the older stepsister.  I don’t doubt that there are also drawbacks about being the youngest, but it works both ways.

      Samantha

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      1. By S.G., age 14, from Santa Ana, CA on 06/28/2014

        It’s the total opposite with me and my older stepsister.  Ever since she came to live with us and moved into my room, she totally dominates everything and I no longer have any rights in my own room.  It does no good to complain as my stepdad totally favors her.  I can’t even have friends over for sleepovers anymore because she doesn’t like it and makes it as difficult as possible, and even makes fun of their bodies when they get undressed.  However, she can have friends spend the night all she wants and they gang up on me and tease and make fun of me.  She also thinks she can walk in on my in the bathroom if she thinks I’ve been in there too long and wants to get in the shower, but has I fit if I try to come in when she’s “on the facility.”

        S.G.

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    2. By Jim C., age 14, from Santa Rosa, CA on 06/29/2014

      I wish my mom and stepdad saw things the way Debbie’s mom does.  I’m a 14 year old guy and have a 12 year old sister and a 17 year old stepsister who lives with us.  Since she’s the oldest, our stepsister is the one who gets her own room, and my sister and I have to share a room since they just consider us “young kids.”  Our stepsister’s really mean to my sister, so she doesn’t want to share a room with her and prefers to share with me.  I really think the girls should be sharing a room for the most obvious of reasons, but our mom and stepdad don’t see it that way, and when I try to raise the issue they just think I’m being selfish and want my own room.  They say that our stepsister will be going to college in another year and we’ll get our own rooms then, so she should have her own room now.  However, another year is a long time to live with this very uncomfortable situation.  It wasn’t that big of a deal when we were younger, but my sister has now reached puberty and is developing breasts and pubic hair and like J.L. says in his comment, I get feelings you shouldn’t be having about your sister when I see her naked, and she still isn’t shy about undressing in front of me.  I try not to look when she’s naked, but it’s impossible to never see her and I’m ashamed to admit that sometimes I do look even though I know it’s wrong, and I sometimes get an erection.  If we were both guys or both girls, I would agree that we’re the ones who should be sharing a room since we’re younger, but I really think that regardless of birth order it’s siblings the same sex who should share a room, especially after they reach puberty.

      Jim C.

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  4. By J.L., age 14, from Santa Clarita, CA on 06/27/2014

    Like I’ve read in previous Straight Talk columns, being the youngest and being a guy with older sisters means they still think of you as a little kid and think nothing about walking around in just a bra and thong and sometimes even nude and don’t seem to have a clue that it gives me feelings you shouldn’t have about your sisters.  I really want to tell them that they need to stay in their room with the door closed when they’re umdressed, but I’m too embarrassed to bring up the subject with them.

    J.L.

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  5. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 06/29/2014

    To J.L. and Jim C.—You guys are right that it’s a big deal for 99.9% of boys and girls who are paired up in bedrooms at puberty. Really not a good situation. The guy suffers the most with guilty feelings, embarrassment, inability to say anything for fear of having to explain, and a lot of unnecessary tension overall. The females are usually clueless and this usually happens in all-female households where there’s only one male, the kid in question. We haven’t done a column on it in a long time, so thanks for bringing it up. The panel had a lot of good things to say on it and I’m going to send you to a couple of earlier columns on it. There are a lot of good ideas for what to say to make things change. If bedrooms can’t be changed around, or there aren’t enough, can’t recommend a room partition enough! Demand one! You can even just tack a sheet across the ceiling. I hope you take action like this and stop torturing yourself. Nothing will change unless you make it change, because they are too clueless. Let me know how it goes. Best to you, Love Lauren

    Here are those columns:
    http://www.straighttalktnt.org/teen-advice/entry/hey_sis_put_some_clothes_on

    http://www.straighttalktnt.org/teen-advice/entry/son_uncomfortable_with_au_naturale_mother

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