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Siblings: What’s Your Birth Order?

My younger brother told me that one of his most enduring childhood memories is chasing me on his tricycle while my friends and I shot away from him on our bikes.

What memories do you have of your siblings?


Sibling position is one of the eight foundational concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory.

Michael Kerr suggests that, for example, “a firstborn, all things being equal (as Dr. Bowen liked to say) is born into a different set of needs and expectations of the system than a secondborn.”


Over time, as we work on our differentiation, we can better manage the automatic responses we learn from our functioning position in the family.

Kerr himself says, “I’m less of a youngest than I used to be.”


For me, this has everything to do with managing my over-functioning and being less bossy.

I recognize that when my anxiety goes up, my irritability with the perceived under-functioning (“irresponsibility!”) of others increases.

I can see it more clearly and regulate it better now on a good day.


Many in ministry are the oldest or only children.

This can work well, to a degree.

They instinctively know how to take charge and articulate a vision.

Still, when the pattern becomes compulsive, it can be a problem.

People at higher levels of differentiation will have a wider repertoire than those who are less mature.


Beth Norton, a long-time Leadership in Ministry workshop participant, notes that sibling dynamics are a bit less important on an ongoing basis.

But, she says, at times of higher anxiety, the patterns emerge more strongly: “It’s predictable who is going to be the caretaker, who are going to be the ones who under function when it gets really stressful, who are going to be the ones who try to take care of them and restore harmony, and who are going to go into a room and close the door.”


Here are some questions to consider about sibling position:

Rev. Margaret Marcuson is a Leadership in Ministry faculty member. Learn more about her expertise here