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Defending Personal Boundaries

How Birth Order Affects Children’s Psychological Sovereignty


HSE psychologists have studied how the presence or absence of siblings, as well as birth order, affect children’s ability to maintainpersonal boundaries. Researchers conducted two empirical studies: one with children aged two to ten, and another with adolescents, aged seventeen to nineteen. The results showed that only children and second-born children have the strongest sense of personal boundaries, while first-born children have the least. However, as children become adults, their ability to balance between their own needs and those of others becomes determined more by gender.

The ability to maintain the boundaries of one's empirical ‘I’, or one’s psychological sovereignty, is a personality trait that helps a person adapt to current life circumstances and solve everyday life tasks. It is associated with many measures of psychological well-being: self-esteem, general mood, and so on. Personal sovereignty is formed as one matures and manifests itself in interactions with other people. It is greatly shaped by one’s relationships with one’s parents and siblings.

In childhood, a person’s adaptation to social life is largely determined by his position in the family—whether one is an only child, the youngest, or the oldest. This results from the fact that parents may unevenly expend emotional and material resources on their children. There are numerous theories on this subject. Some argue that first-borns receive more attention since parents see them as future helpers. Others suggest that in families with two children, first-borns are less likely to interact with others, and children who are born long after an older sibling are less afraid of being rejected by others. Middle children are usually not as close to their mothers as older and younger children are, and therefore they are less sensitive to ties of kinship.

In a study, researchers Sofya Nartova-Bochaver and Olga Silina studied the relationship between psychological sovereignty, the number of siblings in the family, and birth order. To do this, they analyzed the behavior of children and adolescents in conflict situations.

The Children’s Study

The first part of their study examined 108 children (equally half boys, half girls) aged 2 to 10. Among the participants, 35 children were only children, 33 were first-borns, and 40 were second-borns.

While playing, the children set up a make-believe house, in which various life situations that violate their personal space were later acted out: acquaintances and strangers came and criticized children's drawings or simply tried to make them change their routine.

The researchers analyzed the children's reactions in the conflict situations. They watched how the children maintained their psychological, physical, and material well-being when they had to defend the integrity of the house, its interior, and the order in it.

The psychologists analyzed the children’s personal sovereignty in relation to their sibling status in light of several parameters, including how flexible and insightful the children were and whether they resorted to requesting adult help during the conflict.

In the study, only children more confidently defended their personal sovereignty than those who have siblings and demonstrated a higher understanding of boundaries. Only children were shown to more effectively uphold their boundaries and more easily cease communication with others (i.e., close their borders). They strove to ‘integrate’ themselves into social life, focusing on the behavioral norms and their personal position.

‘I know how I want my house to be, but I also want all our houses to be nice and close by. How about I help everyone,’ said an 8-year-old study participant, an only child.

The psychologists also note that the only children and second-borns of the study demonstrated similar tendencies to protect their personal boundaries, while the first-borns were less inclined to be proactive in difficult situations and often summoned adults for help. This behavior manifested itself in the desire to ‘tattle’ on others or openly request assistance. In addition, they tended to comment on their opponents’ actions, endlessly repeat requests, and tell stories.

The first part of the study showed that sibling status influences the ways in which children maintain and defend their personal boundaries. Only children and second-borns, in comparison with first-borns, feel freer and bolder in society and more readily assert themselves. First-borns are more inclined to ‘adapt’ to external requirements and show greater tolerance and respect for social rules.

The Adolescent Study

In order to examine the effect of sibling status on personal sovereignty in older children, the researchers interviewed 187 students (131 girls and 56 boys) aged 17-19. 148 of the participants had siblings: of them, 85 were first-borns, 48 were second-borns, 10 were third-borns, and 5 were fourth-borns.

Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire, which contained 67 statements. Each statement presented a situation which threatened the respondent’s sovereignty and outlined his or her emotional response to it. The participants’ answers made it possible to understand how adolescents protect the sovereignty of their body, territory, personal belongings, habits, social contacts and values.

The study showed that sovereignty, as a stable personality trait, is not determined by one’s gender or one’s birth order. The study also showed no differences in sovereignty among teenagers who are only children or have siblings. However, the psychologists noted that second-borns tend to defend their personal boundaries in relation to short-term habits than first-borns.

At the same time, differences were found between the male and female groups of respondents in several subscales. Among boys, the higher the birth order, the lower their level of general sovereignty. Among girls, the opposite was observed. ‘Boys are more competitive, as Adlerian psychoanalysis has already shown. Younger boys have to compete with their elders. It wears them out. Among girls, the opposite is observed: the lower a girl’s birth order, the less responsibility for household duties she has and the more positively she feels about her siblings. Generally, it comes down to cultural gender roles,’ says Sofya Nartova-Bochaver.

In comparison with boys, girls more strongly protect their territory, and the more siblings they have, the stronger this personality trait manifests itself in them. ‘Traditionally, a more respectful attitude is maintained towards the privacy of girls (which is shown by Altman). Perhaps this tendency makes them more confident and more successful. Parents start knocking on their bedroom doors and asking permission to enter earlier,’ the psychologist notes. They also have a more developed sovereignty in terms of short-term habits. They manage their time more freely, while boys demonstrate the opposite tendency.

Upon a final review of all the subscales, the researchers conclude that in adolescence, younger female siblings and first-born boys have the most durable boundaries.


Study authors
Sophia Nartova-Bochaver, Professor, School of Psychology, HSE University
Olga Silina, psychologist, Fairy Tale of Childhood Centre of Psychology
Author: Alena Tarasova, October 02, 2019