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Personality Descriptors in Adlerian Counselling

Here is a question which, I hope, will start our discussion about Adlerian counselling. As you read the personality descriptors identified by Adler to be typically associated with the various birth order positions, would you recognize them to be reasonably true (i.e., they were never intended to be 100% accurate for everybody) in your case, or with people you know?  Remember that you can find more of those descriptors on the website of the Adler Institute of San Francisco.


  • As Adlerians are fond of writing, no two children ever grow up in the same family: with the birth of each child, the family dynamic changes for- ever. No other child will ever know what it is like to be the oldest child, but neither will anybody else know what it is like to be the youngest.
    • Phenomenology. Although it is important to understand what children are born with, material and efficient causes, it is equally—and often more—important to know how the children perceive what they were born with. By understanding chil- dren’s perceptions of their situations, a key insight is gained into their worlds. Many children who appear to have (by external standards) a “gift” perceive it as a “curse.”
    • Soft Determinism. Adlerians advocate for soft determinism. Hard determinism states unequivocally that “A leads to B.” Nondeterminism states that there are no causes, and everything is a matter of free will. Adlerians tend to split the differ- ence: “A most often leads to B, if that is of use to the person and that is how the person perceived the situation.” Soft determinism stresses influences, not causes. It speaks of probabilities, not certainties.
    • Adlerians seek to understand the clients’ lifestyle convictions, a task consonant with cognitive-behavior theory. Cognitive therapists seek to identify distortions in a client’s thinking such as “should” statements that represent unrealistic expectations that the client holds.
    • “should” statements would be analogous to unrealistic self-ideal beliefs that Adlerians seek to identify. Cognitive theory also emphasizes not only what a person thinks but also how the person thinks. For example, the key cognitive therapy concept of dichotomous thinking (a tendency to view things in terms of mutually exclusive categories) is similar to Adler’s notion of antithetical modes of apperception, where the client mistakenly evaluates and dichotomizes impression in terms of above–below, masculine–feminine, or all or nothing (Adler, 2002).
    • Temperament refers to the inborn characteristics children have, which are primarily genetic. Experts have debated how many temperaments there are, but the fact that humans are born with certain predisposition seems clear. Those temperaments are quickly modified via learning and socialization.
    • Personality can be defined as a collection of traits and characteristics children develop through the process of socialization. Given their temperamental predispositions and early childhood experiences, personality develops.
  • Birth Order and Sibling Relationships. Adler (2012a) discussed the birth order of children. He identified five positions: only, oldest, second, middle, and youngest. He also described the characteristic attributes for each position—for example, only children tend to be perfectionists, oldest borns become leaders, second borns become rebels, middle children become pleasers, and youngest borns become at- tention seekers. Many authors, including some Adlerians, have written best-selling

books describing birth-order roles (Forer & Still, 1976; Leman, 1985). The utility of the concept of birth order in Adlerian psychology has been debated, and differing opinions exist even among Adlerians (Shulman & Mosak, 1977). Nonetheless, sib- ling relationships are crucial, even when they do not fit neatly into the traditionally defined birth-order roles. Parents are crucial to the development of the lifestyle, but siblings are as well—and sometimes even more important. Why? It is not so mysterious. Children will often spend more time with siblings than parents, and that extra time can influence many of the choices children make. Sibling relation- ships and the role children carve out for themselves in childhood often manifest later in life as the stance adults take toward socialization across many different con- texts and roles.

  • six common factors can be outlined as goals of Adlerian psychotherapy:
  • fostering community feeling;
  • decreasing feelings of inferiority, and therefore, psychological symptoms;
  • modifying the lifestyle to make it more adaptive, flexible, and prosocial;
  • changing faulty motivation and destructive values;
  • encouraging equality and acceptance of self and others; and
  • helping the person to be a contributing member of the world community
  • The main focus of Adlerian psychotherapy is to change the way clients view them- selves and their worlds. Some attention must be directed to symptoms (as will be dis- cussed below), but by and large, their styles of life must be changed.
    • Adlerian psychotherapy has been characterized as having four stages (Dreikurs, 1967). In reality, these are not stages, but processes that roughly appear in the following order but can occur anytime. The four stages are
      • (1) relationship building;
      • (2) investigating and uncovering the dynamics of the clients, typically via the collection of lifestyle mate- rial;
      • (3) interpreting the lifestyle so as to gain insight and reeducation as to the meaning clients have attached to life, themselves, and others; and
      • (4) reorientating, the process of teaching new skills and attitudes to encourage community feeling and social interest.
    • Birth order has been widely studied and has been shown to be a valid construct of personality development. Eckstein and colleagues (2010) provided a meta-analy- sis of birth-order research and found several lifestyle (personality) factors associated with birth order. For example, a tendency toward success and achievement were seen in first-born children, middle children were shown to demonstrate a tendency toward high sociability, and only children were found to also be high in achieve- ment motivation. Although there has been some controversy related to the evi- dence of birth order and its relationship to personality, research has demonstrated support for differences in birth-order characteristics according to psychological birth-order position.

As you read the personality descriptors identified by Adler to be typically associated with the various birth order positions, would you recognize them to be reasonably true (i.e., they were never intended to be 100% accurate for everybody) in your case, or with people you know?  Remember that you can find more of those descriptors on the website of the Adler Institute of San Francisco.

oldest borns become leaders, second borns become rebels, middle children become pleasers, and youngest borns become at- tention seekers.


Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. [Website]. Retrieved from:

2.1. Post 1

As I read through the personality descriptors identified by Adler to be typically associated with the various birth order positions, I found that I could recognize them as being reasonably true. I grew up being the oldest of six siblings. The order went myself (1998), my two brothers two years later (2000), another brother four years later (2002), a sister eight years later (2006), and my final sister arriving ten years after myself (2008). Being the oldest, I was given a lot of responsibility in the family, especially in terms of caring for my younger siblings. I also learned to share early on, was expected to set an example, had high expectations placed on me, and have always felt the need to be very helpful (Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington, 2022; Maniacci, 2019). The aspects of personality descriptors identified by Adler that I found to be untrue include becoming authoritarian and strict. I tend to be far more flexible and liberal with my decisions. Being that I was also the only girl amongst three boys for the first eight years of my life, I can also relate to being a tomboy and trying to outdo my brothers (Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington, 2022).


Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. [Website]. Retrieved from:

Maniacci, M. P., & Sackett-Maniacci, L. (2019). Adlerian psychotherapy. In D. Wedding &

R. J. Corsini (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (11th ed., pp. 59-100). Boston, MA: Cengage.

2.1. Post 2

Dr. Dannison,

I am the oldest of six, three brothers and two sisters. For the first eight years of my life, it was only me and my three younger brothers, which I think contributed to be not matching the typical “leader” persona mentioned by Adler. I often just wanted to fit in with the three of them, which only happened if the second oldest could take charge.

This, however, does follow Adler’s description of the second being “more competitive” and wanting to “overtake the older child” (Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington, 2022). I think this greatly played into my dynamic with my siblings. I also found that my youngest brother (four years) displays

the characteristics Adler attributes to the youngest child, asides from being ultimately dethroned by my two sisters that followed six and eight years after him. My youngest brother has always been a major attention seeker with constant huge plans that he never actually follows through on (Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington, 2022). I think that the age gaps between siblings and gender order greatly plays into potential personality descriptors that each sibling develops. Another aspect that only partially fits is that myself, my second youngest brother and my youngest sister are the even-tempered, peacemakers in the family. Additionally, my second youngest sister fits into the “second child” typology outlined by Adler, not the middle child. This could potentially result from her pushing to fit in with her three older brothers, something that my youngest sister never had to do because they all view her as the baby.


Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. [Website]. Retrieved from:

2.1. Post 3


I found your question on whether birth order has any association to the development of mental health concerns very thought provoking. After conducting further research, I came across a study examining the association of birth order with mental health problems, self-esteem, resilience, and happiness among children aged 9–10 years. The results of this study found differential impacts of birth order on child mental health, for both positive and negative sides. Specifically, last-borns demonstrated the highest prosocial behaviour, lowest scores on the Parent-Rated Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, and highest resilience scores. The second highest resilience scores went to first-borns, followed by middle-borns and only-children. The lowest happiness score was found in middle-borns. Finally, self-esteem scores did not differ between birth order. What do you think about this study’s findings? DO you feel that they could be impacted by confounding variables in each of the families participating in the study?


Fukuya, Y., Fujiwara, T., Isumi, A., Doi, S., & Ochi, M. (2021). Association of birth order with mental health problems, self-esteem, resilience, and happiness among children: results from a-CHILD study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12. Retrieved from


  • Post 4

2.2.   Questions in Adlerian vs. Solution-Focused Therapy

In their article, Bitter and Nicoll (2000) distinguished between the use of “The Question” in Adlerian therapy and the “The Miracle Question” employed by solution-focused therapists. Do you find that distinction useful and how would you use the technique in your future practice?

Adlerian – “The Questions”: What would you be doing if you did not have these symptoms or problems? OR How could your life be different if you did not have these issues, concerns, or problems?

  • Verifying question that links client’s rules of interaction to the problem presented

Solution-focused therapy – “The Miracle Question”: What is your desired outcome of this therapy?

  • Becomes the total focus of therapy
    • Indicates solutions based on avoidance strategies rather than a description of preferred outcomes


Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44. Retrieved

from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=9064041

2.2. Post 1

In Adlerian therapy, “The Question” refers to what the client feels they would do with their life if they were not experiencing any of the symptoms or problems that they are currently presenting with (Bitter & Nicoll, 2000). The response assists the therapist in figuring out if the problem is psychogenic or organic. If the client were to respond saying their life would be the same, minus the symptoms, then the indicated issue would be physiological (p. 36). This question is used to verify an intervention that links the client’s rules for interacting with the presenting issue (p. 36).

Solution focused therapists transformed this into “The Miracle Question”. This question is used to figure out a client’s desired outcomes of therapy and will becomes the main focus during intervention (p. 36). There is often resistance with this question because this question nearly always indicates solutions based on avoidance strategies instead of preferred outcomes.


Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44. Retrieved

from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=9064041

2.2. Post 2

“The Question” works to uncover the reason behind the presenting problem. This could be very beneficial in a counselling setting, as it allows the counsellor to get to the root of the issue at a faster pace (Bitter & Nicoll, 2000). However, “The Miracle Question” approach works to establish the solution, which is what will be focused on until the client ultimately achieves their goals (Bitter & Nicoll, 2000). Due to the different direction of each question, both could be beneficial depending on the desired outcome. I have a few follow up questions for everyone, regarding this week’s topic. I wonder how these questions would work with individuals with different levels of comprehension, like teens or even children. Do you think that phrasing either of these questions to a child would produce a useful response for the counsellor? Also, could a counsellor utilize both

questions in the same treatment, or would that be counterproductive? Finally, which of the two questions do you feel is the most beneficial, or is it context dependent?

Looking forward to hearing back!


Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44. Retrieved

from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=9064041

1.2. Post 3.


I appreciate you adding your concern regarding “The Question” being too cognitively demanding for younger clients. The children I work with also tend to struggle at times to articulate themselves on their present problems. Therefore, having them attempt to plan out a hypothetical scenario looking at what their lives would look like without their problems would be quite challenging.

I do find the distinction between “The Question” and “The Miracle Question” useful in a therapeutic context. “The Question” works to uncover the reason behind the presenting problem. This could be very beneficial in a counselling setting, as it allows the counsellor to get to the root of the issue at a faster pace (Bitter & Nicoll, 2000).

However, “The Miracle Question” approach works to establish the solution, which is what will be focused on until the client ultimately achieves their goals (Bitter & Nicoll, 2000).

What similarities do you see between these two questions in the context of therapy? [159]

Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=9064041

1.2.   Post 4


I really appreciate your contribution of “The Lifestyle Assessment” to this

discussion. Adlerian counsellors implement the lifestyle assessment by examining their client’s early recollections. Their goal is to work through their client’s existing perception of their past experiences, in order to enhance their present behaviour and future goals. A lifestyle assessment assists counsellors in understanding an individual’s core beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them, as well as the rules they have embedded about life and any goals they have set for themselves (Kopp & Dinkmeyer, 1975). Due to the vast array of differences between each client and how

they view themselves and the world around them, implementing an investigation such as this is so beneficial in establishing a whole picture of who the client is.

During the individual’s recollection, they will emphasize and diminish certain details. As a result of this, Adlerian counsellors can utilize the memories they gather as projective data to infer their client’s basic lifestyle elements that influence them in the current day (Kopp & Dinkmeyer, 1975).


Kopp, R. R., & Dinkmeyer, D. (1975). Early Recollections in Life Style Assessment and Counseling. The School Counselor, 23(1), 22–27.


Maniacci, M. P., & Sackett-Maniacci, L. (2019). Adlerian psychotherapy. In D. Wedding & R. J. Corsini (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (11th ed., pp. 59- 100). Boston, MA: Cengage.

  • Read the textbook chapter before you begin to do the work in the lesson in order to get an overview of the theory.  After reading the textbook material, supplement that information by reading the articles by Belangee (2012), Bitter

and Nicoll (2000), and Overholser (2010).

Articles & Online Content

Belangee, S. (2012). Individual psychology: Relevant techniques for today’s counselor. Counseling Today, 55(1), 48-51. Retrieved from https://search- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=ehh&AN=77638979

Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44. Retrieved

from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=9064041

Overholser, J. C. (2010). Psychotherapy that strives to encourage social interest: A simulated interview with Alfred Adler. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 20(4), 347-363. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost- direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=pdh&AN=2010-26284-    001

Unit 2 Notes: Adlerian Counselling – Alfred Adler

The test of one’s behavior pattern is their relationship to society, relationship to work, and relationship to sex.

– Alfred Adler


Alfred Adler (1870-1937) developed the first holistic theory of personality, psychopathology, and psychotherapy that was very closely connected to a humanistic philosophy of living. The concepts of the Adlerian approach have had widespread effect across the helping professions both in theory and in practice. The “common sense” basis that the approach has taken has resulted in many of Adler’s ideas being used by other theories. Concepts such as superiority and inferiority complex, total orientation, and lifestyle have become so common that few realize that they originated with Adler.

Adler’s approach views the individual’s state of mental health as being directly related to the degree of social interest. In other words, Adlerians have a positive outlook on humankind and value the well-being of the individual and society over organization and institutions. The core of Adler’s work centres around his optimistic, humanistic view of life.

After Adler’s death in 1937, Rudolph Dreikurs kept the Adlerian approach alive in North America. He was also the Director of the Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago. Dreikurs’ work has been very influential not only in the fields of counselling and psychotherapy, but also in education (Dreikurs et al., 1982).

Basic Concepts

  1. Life style
    1. Family constellation
    1. Social interest
    1. Teleological
    1. Fictional finalism
    1. Basic inferiority
    1. Early recollections
    1. Masculine protest
    1. Reorientation
    1. Birth order
    1. Superiority

Basic Assumptions

There are several basic assumptions that apply to the Adlerian theory. These include:

  1. behaviour is purposive and goal directed;
  2. humans are born with a sense of inferiority and a striving for superiority;
  3. to understand the individual one must know the pattern of his/her life (life style);
  4. perceptions of the world determine one’s behaviour;
  5. we mould our own personalities;
  6. the ideal form of striving is social interest;
  7. personality is laid down early in life; and
  • basic obstacles to growth are: organ inferiority, pampering, and neglect.


When attempting to understand behaviour, Adler advises us to seek purpose rather than cause.

Heredity. We enter the world with certain genetic givens; however, it is not genetics that affects personality, but the individual’s perception of himself or herself. We inherit a cerebral potential that permits us to hope, dream, aspire, plan, form attitudes, and set goals. These allow us to be creative and self-directing.

Environment. Out of the family environment, we develop a sense of self. People can only be understood interpersonally and as social beings moving through and interacting with their environment. Adverse environmental influences include pampering and neglect, leading to the formation of mistaken goals.

Cognitions. Adler adopted a phenomenological  orientation,  emphasizing  the individual’s perceptions or subjective reality of his or her experiences. (What we are does not determine our behaviour, but what we think we are does.) He also emphasized the role of learning in the formation of the style of life.

Motivation. Motivation is tied to an innate, never-ending striving for perfection and completion. Social interest is seen as the primary source of motivation. We strive for superiority, social interest, through purposive goal-directed behaviour. Perceived inferiority is a motivating condition for behaviour, and striving for goals is a motivational principle.

Time Orientation

There is a moderate emphasis on the past, particularly the importance of early development. Although a historical assessment is made in Adlerian counselling, the focus is on dealing with the clients’ current perceptions of their past, in an attempt to change goals for the future. Adlerians take a teleological stance, viewing the individual as being pulled toward the future rather than being pushed by the past (Peterson & Nisenholz, 1999). Expectations of future outcomes determine present behaviour, goals, and ends.

View of Human Nature

Humans are primarily social beings. The emphasis is on the client’s subjective frame of reference. People have the capability of self-determination. They are neither good nor bad, but, as creative choosing agents, they make choices based on and reflected in their lifestyle.

Preference for Explanations

Holistic vs. atomistic. The Adlerian approach to counselling subscribes to a holistic view of the human nature.

“Holism, like Gestalt Psychology, recognizes the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The whole in itself is an active factor; it cannot be explained by the characteristics of its parts, the human being is composed of physical, chemical, and biological structures, with physiological and psychological mechanisms. However, the human body by itself is neither human nor a body; mind, apart from the whole of personality, becomes a functionless abstraction.” (Dreikurs, 1997, p. 130).

External vs. internal determinants. Individual psychology places an emphasis on internal values, goals, and interests and the individual’s perception of reality.

Nomothetic vs. idiographic Case studies (idiographic research) have been the focus of most of research in individual psychology. The emphasis in Adlerian counselling remains on the individual’s unique subjective perception of self and others.

Longitudinal vs. cross sectional. The longitudinal perspective is used to understand the client. This is reflected in the use of early recollections, as well as obtaining a comprehensive client history, all part of the lifestyle assessment.

Tension reduction vs. tension production. Adlerian therapy is based on tension production: striving for superiority and perfection. It is a growth model, whereby much of a person’s behaviour can be explained as involving an individual’s movement towards growth and self-actualization.

Observer Frame of Reference

Both internal and external factors are considered in the Adlerian approach to counselling. The theory looks at an individual’s subjective perception of reality. At the same time, the theory is contextual: issues are considered from the perspective of the client’s family and society.

Bases for Inference

The theory emphasizes the individual’s uniqueness through such concepts as: private logic, style of life, and creative self. However, Adler proposed a predictive theory of general psychological characteristics that individuals develop based on their early family constellation, more specifically based on their birth position/order among their siblings. At the same time, Adler cautioned therapists against using this theory as a template and thus ignoring the unique idiosyncratic factors that shape individual personality.

Bases for Psychopathology

Adlerian theory considers the following as possible sources of psychopathology:

  • lack of social interest, mistaken beliefs and inadequate psychological models, overambition, or discouragement;
  • poor self concept; and
  • pampering, neglect, organ inferiority (real or perceived physical weaknesses of the body), sibling rivalry, and self-defeating behaviour.

Adler believed that these childhood situations tend to result in isolation, a lack of social interest, and the development of a non-cooperative style of life based on an unrealistic goal of personal superiority. In Adler’s theory, neurosis is viewed as an escape from fulfilling one’s duties to the community. It is the symptom of mistaken goals, failure to learn, and a product of distorted perceptions.

To compensate for feelings of inferiority, people strive for superiority. Problems occur when they become discouraged and strive for inappropriate goals. These goals are especially recognizable in children and include: gaining attention or power, getting revenge, or acting inadequate.

Attention seeking. The person is continually seeking approval for his or her actions.

Power. The person wants to win, or be in control. Behaviour descriptors include “rebel” and “stubborn.”

Revenge. The person does things to hurt others. Behaviour descriptors include “vicious” or “violently passive.”

Inadequacy. When the person assumes deficiency and gives up trying. The attitude is one of “hopelessness.”.

Bases for Healthy Personality

A healthy individual has a strong social interest and realistic life goals. He or she has an effective, socially acceptable, healthy compensation for perceived inferiorities and is a contributing member of a democratic family and a democratic society.

Role of the Therapist

The therapist focuses on the importance of educating clients as a preventative measure. The therapist guides the client toward adaptive behaviour, which leads to a reduction in feelings of inferiority. The Adlerian counsellor corrects the client’s mistaken perceptions and develops new goals for behaviour.

Implications for the Helping Relationship

Therapists need to be aware of the importance of focusing on the individual’s subjective reality.

Goals for Helping

The primary goal of Adlerian counselling is to develop the clients’ social interest so that they will be able to live as equals in society, both giving to and receiving from others (Maniacci, Sackett-Maniacci, & Mosak 2014). This may mean re-educating clients to modify their lifestyles. Therapy is a learning experience. Change in behaviour follows a change in motivation through insight.

There are three major goals of therapy: (a) understanding the lifestyle, (b) promoting self-understanding, and (c) strengthening social interest.

Techniques and Procedures

Encouragement is a major method of responding, one that has been found to be more effective than other social reinforcers, such as praise. Encouragement generally focuses on strengths that the client has but may not acknowledge or appreciate.

Comprehensive life-style assessment includes eliciting an extensive client history (including possible medications), exploration of family constellation, early recollections (used as a projective technique), and, to some extent, analysis of dreams. Most Adlerian counsellors are not very keen on using objective psychological tests, regarding them more as a measure of the clients’ test-taking attitudes (Maniacci, Sackett-Maniacci, & Mosak, 2014). However, the most frequently used Adlerian instrument of life-style assessment is the one developed by Shulman and Mosak (1988). Another questionnaire for life-style assessment in brief Adlerian therapy can be found on the website of the Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington.

Acting “as if.” Clients are instructed to act “as if” they are the persons they want to be. Asking The Question (How would things be different if you didn’t have this problem?) is usually a simple way to help clients become more aware of their mistaken beliefs and adopt new realistic goals.

Catching oneself. The client learns to become aware of self-destructive behaviours or thoughts.

Spitting in the client’s soup. Adlerians believe that there is a payoff or reward for behaviours that are maintained; therefore, when a counsellor points out the particular payoff for a negative behaviour, the “enjoyment” may be diminished.

Comments on Family Constellation (Birth Order) Theory

The following information was provided by Dr. Du-Fay Der, former professor in the Department of Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia. These statements are meant as tentative generalizations regarding the various positions in the birth order. There are many exceptions. These characteristics apply to families in which the siblings were born less than five or six years apart.

Characteristics of the first child. When the first-born is the only child, he or she gets undivided attention. The child may feel self-reliant to the point of being spoiled, or very dependent because of over-protection. He or she feels insecure when a second child invades his or her kingdom and may misinterpret this as rejection. This situation is also referred to as the “dethroned child.” The first child may get more attention as a baby

because of the inexperience of the parents leading to unnecessary care and attention. The first child tends to be steady, dependable, and even exploits his or her worthiness at the expense of brothers or sisters. Usually a high achiever, the first-born is the subject of higher expectations from the parents. He or she tends to follow the parents’ values and attitudes. Serious and studious, the first-born tries to please or obey parents. First-borns are usually orderly and good leaders. If dethroned by the second-born, the first child may become a problem child.

Characteristics of the second child. The second-born child usually feels that he or she cannot compare with the older sibling and tries to find a different place in the family. Therefore, the second-born may adopt ways of behaving that are similar to the youngest child until the third child comes. Unacceptable behaviour is usually based on discouragement, but it may also represent an early sign of over-compensation, which may lead to positive outcomes and achievements. What the second-born child does with his/her situation depends upon how he/she perceives it. Quite often, the second-born may be compared unfavourably with the older sibling. Often his or her interests and achievements are different from those of the older brother or sister. This may include being less steady and poised. The second-born may be active and pushy. If the first child is a good student, the second may present behavioural problems. The second child may be sociable, outgoing, and happy-go-lucky. Sometimes, the second child may feel squeezed, unloved, and unnoticed, which leads to feelings of discouragement.

Characteristics of the third child. Once the two older siblings have established their positions within the family constellation, the third-born tends to be viewed as the “baby,” which secures a special amount of attention and services. This works so well that, in some cases, it may continue into adulthood. The third-born may occasionally resent this perceived inferior position and may attempt to dominate (“chip on shoulder”). This is when the first and the third child may join forces (form an alliance) against the middle child. With everyone doing things for “the baby,” the third-born may be deprived of the opportunity to develop self-confidence and self-reliance. The third- born often struggles to be noticed and seeks approval for his/her accomplishments. The third-born child may be spoiled by the family. He or she may also be the boss of the family by playing helpless, thus making everyone serve him/her. Sometimes, it is the third-born who outperforms all others. The third-born is not usually a leader, rather a follower, and is not known to be tidy and neat.

Exceptions to the Rule

Only boy among girls (or vice versa). An only boy among girls, regardless of his position, would find his gender either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending upon the family value placed upon the male role and his own estimate of his ability to live up to it. The same would be true of an only girl among boys.

The weak or sickly child. A weak or sickly child among healthy, robust siblings might discover the role of an invalid advantageous if the family pities him or her. But, if robust health is a high family value and weakness is scorned, he/she would find himself/herself faced with an obstacle. The child would have the choice of giving up, living in self-pity, and feeling like a victim, or of striving to overcome the illness and matching the activities of the other siblings, even, perhaps, outdoing them.

Child born after  the  death  of  the  first  sibling. Such a child is really the second child living with a ghost ahead of him/her. Also, this child is in the position of a first child. The mother may overprotect this child out of her fear of losing him/her. This child may choose to bask in this stifling atmosphere or may rebel and strive for independence.

The youngest child. The youngest child soon discovers that he or she has many servants, which may lead to the development of a sense of helplessness. If parents are not aware of this or are unconsciously encouraging it, the youngest child plays the role of the “helpless little thing” and is forever dependent.

The only child. The only child is in a very difficult situation. He or she is a child among adults–a dwarf among giants. This child has no siblings to relate to. The goal may become one of pleasing and manipulating adults. He or she either develops adult viewpoints, is precocious in understanding and reaching an adult level, or is hopelessly an eternal baby, always feeling inferior to others. The relationships to other children are often strained and uncertain because of a failure to understand them. The only child does not develop a feeling of belonging to groups of children, unless exposed early to group experiences.

Learning Activities

  1. After reading the textbook chapter, you will have clarified the fundamental concepts of the Adlerian approach. As you review the assumptions about human nature and Adler’s view of inferiority feelings, reflect on whether you experience a sense of perceived inferiority in your life? How well does the concept fit for you?
  2. Family  Constellation  (Birth  Order  Characteristics).  Adler  suggested that birth order is a major determinant in shaping personality. Review the generalizations regarding birth order and consider your own self-concept as it relates to these general descriptions. How did your position in your family constellation affect your personal growth? For more descriptors of psychological characteristics based on birth order, visit the website of the Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco (see useful links below).

Study Questions

  1. Adler’s view of human nature focuses on internal determinants of behaviour such as: values, beliefs, attitudes, goals, interests, and striving for meaning. It also stresses the social determinants of personality. How does the model differ from the Freudian model, and what are the implications for therapy?
  2. Define and briefly discuss the following concepts from the Adlerian perspective:
    1. inferiority feeling
    1. striving for superiority
    1. style of life
    1. childhood experiences
  • Adler believed that we create ourselves as opposed to being passively shaped and determined by childhood experiences. Do you favour this view? Why?
    • In their article, Bitter and Nicoll (2000) stated that Adlerians use The Question as a “verifying intervention.” Explain what they mean by that.
    • A client of yours, a young girl, informs you that she feels inferior to her sister, which, in turn, makes her feel extremely guilty whenever she surpasses her sister in school. As an Adlerian counsellor, how would you proceed to understand and alleviate her feelings of guilt?
    • Compare and contrast a first-born with a last-born child in terms of typical behavioural characteristics according to Adler.
    • Your clients, a young couple, claim that they are unable to make their children follow the house rules. The more authoritarian the couple tries to be, the less compliant their children become. Explain why the children refuse to cooperate and suggest ways in which the parents can achieve compliance.


Bettner, B. L., & Lew A. (1993). The Connexions Focussing Technique for couple therapy: A model for understanding life-style and complementarity in couples. Individual Psychology, 49, 372-391.

Bitter, J. R., & Nicoll, W. G. (2000). Adlerian brief therapy with individuals: Process and practice. Journal of Individual Psychology, 56, 31-44.

Dreikurs, R. (1997). Holistic medicine. Individual Psychology, 53(2), 127-205.

Dreikurs, R., Grunwald, B. B., & Pepper, F. C. (1982). Maintaining sanity in the classroom: Classroom management techniques (2nd  ed.). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Maniacci, M. P., Sackett-Maniacci, L., & Mosak, H. H. (2014). Adlerian psychotherapy. In D. Wedding & R. J. Corsini (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (10th  ed.), pp. 55- 94). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage.

Peterson, J., & Nesenholz, B. (1999). Orientation to counseling (4th  ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Shulman, B. H., & Mosak, H. H. (1988). Manual for Life Style Assessment. London, UK: Accelerated Development.

Useful Links (Note: These are not in APA style)

Adler University. [Website]. Retrieved from

Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington. [Website]. Retrieved from

  • many mental processes occur unconsciously: thoughts, feelings, motives
  • conscious motives guide consciously chosen behavior, whereas implicit or unconscious motives guide behavior over the long run, when consciousness is not directly focused on goals (McClelland, Koestner, & Weinberger, 1989).
  • Along different lines, L. S. Newman, Duff, and Baumeister (1997) found support in a series of studies for an ingenious theory about the mechanisms by which one defense, projection, occurs. Drawing on Wegner’s (1992) work on thought suppression, they found that people who avoid thinking about threatening aspects of themselves and have a tendency to avoid awareness of their feelings become chronically vigilant toward precisely those traits they want to deny; this chronic accessibility leads them to use those same trait constructs when making inferences about other people.
  • Several other literatures bear on psychological defense and particularly on the hypothesis that people can prevent themselves from consciously experiencing affect as a way of trying to manage unpleasant feeling states. The literature on adult attachment demonstrates that people inhibit conscious access to representations of the self, others, and relationships on the basis of their affective qualities. Unlike adults with secure attachment styles, who speak freely and openly about their relationships with their parents, avoidant adults dismiss the importance of attachment relationships or offer idealized generalizations about their parents yet are unable to back them up with specific examples (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985). Dozier and Kobak (1992)

have produced physiological evidence of the discordance between what avoidant adults know and feel consciously and unconsciously

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