This Thursday is National Middle Child Day, a good time to think about the children in our families who tend to get overlooked. Now, I don’t know that middle children really do get overlooked. Dr. Alfred Adler’s famous theory about birth order hasn’t been borne out in the scientific research, but the stereotypes persist. I am the oldest child, for example, and tend to fit the stereotypes such as being bossy (although I prefer to call it leadership).
Still, many stereotypes have some element of truth, and it certainly is easy for adults to overlook quiet and compliant children. Sometimes, if we are raising children with different degrees and types of trauma, it is easy to get caught up in the drama and needs of our most difficult children. We assume that the kids we aren’t hearing from are doing fine. In other situations, if we don’t have time to pay close attention, we may miss subtle signs that one of our kids is struggling.
I haven’t been very good at this task over the years. I tend to live inside my own head and just don’t notice the world around me. It doesn’t help that I usually have several work projects going at a time (have I mentioned my new book lately?) and generally feel more comfortable with practical plans than emotions. There were several times that I found my kids in a crisis and, looking back, saw several red flags that I had missed at the time.
Eventually, I learned to be more proactive and to check in with my kids even when they seemed to be doing just fine. Every family has to find its own rhythm, but what works best for me is to work in blocks of time. I can’t shift focus very well between small projects and I don’t multitask nearly as well as I like to think. When I block out chunks of time, on the other hand, it’s much easier to focus and pay attention. With our last placement, my husband and I carved out Friday evenings to spend with our foster child. We ignored work calls and the rest of our to-do lists, and simply talked about how the week had gone, what the next week looked like, and what the child needed from us. When we started scheduling more frequent family therapy sessions, we changed the dinners to another day, but the principles stayed the same.
Other times can work just as well. When my youngest stepson was in elementary and middle school, I drove him to school every morning. That drive gave me a chance to check in with him more often than with our son who rode the bus to high school. Another elementary-age child rode the bus most days, but every Friday I took her to breakfast and then to school. That weekly ritual was not only fun, but a good time to touch base.
Whatever the technique, we need to make certain that we aren’t overlooking the quiet kids who seem to be doing fine. They may be fine, or they may be hiding a lot of pain and trauma. If it’s the latter, that trauma will make its way to the surface eventually. The sooner we find out about it, the better off our family will be.