'Golden Child Syndrome' can negatively impact your mental health as an adult

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Golden Child Syndrome, explained by psychologistsRawpixel - Getty Images

By the time you reach adulthood, you've likely realised that the way you were treated in childhood can have a pretty big—and long-lasting—impact on your life. What it means to be the eldest daughter or an only child, for example, have been studied and discussed ad nauseum for this very reason: to help adults cope with the stressful parts of their childhood, and hopefully, make sense of it.

One of the more challenging childhood knots to untangle is that of the golden child, says Marianna Strongin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. This is the child who seems to be the centre of the family, responsible for everything from regulating everyone’s mood to winning the spelling bee to deep-cleaning the house every weekend. If you were given an abnormal amount of responsibility at a young age and took on a semi-parental role in the household, you may be a golden child, says Strongin.

'This creates a symbiotic relationship where the more the child achieves, the more attention and praise they get from the parents,' says Strongin. 'So they’re more likely to achieve, and when they can’t, they have a serious problem.'

What is that problem, exactly? If too much pressure is placed on a child to get straight As (or even provide for their family, in more extreme cases), it can rob them of their childhood and lead to feelings of resentment and even more serious issues like anxiety, depression, and/or difficulty setting boundaries in adulthood, she adds.

If all of this sounds a little too familiar, don’t panic—there are ways to heal from golden child syndrome as an adult. Ahead, psychologists explain what it means to be a golden child, how it can impact your life, and how to overcome the effects of this syndrome.

What is a golden child?

While the label 'golden child' isn’t a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a common phenomenon that can have a profound impact on a child, says Strongin. It can also cause a dysfunctional parent-child relationship, she adds.

'When people use the term 'golden child' or 'golden child syndrome,' they are referring to a child who has been deemed by their family—most often the parents—to be exceptional in one way or another,' says Brandy Smith, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Alabama. Essentially, this means that the golden child is expected to be good at everything (even if those things don't come naturally to them), never make mistakes, and always meet their parents' desires, even if they don’t agree with them.

Additionally, 'the golden child feels pressure from the parents,' says Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. 'If they want to continue to receive the love, attention, and affection that is showered on them, they have to continue to achieve and behave in a way that the parents dictate.'

Parental praise can not only affect the golden child’s perception of self, but this family dynamic can also affect siblings, too. 'Golden children are held up as the example that other children need to strive to emulate. This can create resentment and feelings of competition between siblings,' Cole explains. Basically, even though all the children may live in the same home, they may not feel like their parents treat them equally because the golden child is seen as incapable of any wrongdoing.

'Siblings may not actually have anything against their golden child sibling, but because of how that child is treated within the family unit, animosity can develop because they are pitted against one another and told they are 'less than' or insufficient in some way,' adds Smith. 'Rivalry [can also develop] in the form of the golden child viewing their siblings negatively because they are not living up to what they 'should,' based on parental expectations.'

What are the signs of golden child syndrome?

Golden children are often deprived of a real childhood because of the intense pressure to succeed. This can cause them to stress over small mistakes and have a difficult time making choices, says Smith. As adults, golden children can then have low self-esteem, difficulty setting boundaries with others, or a tendency toward people-pleasing, she says. Signs of this syndrome include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. A need to achieve

'Golden children may be super high-achieving because it’s the only way to get love and attention,' says Cole. Since they are expected to always live up to this expectation, they may overwork themselves to get it.

This can look like being pressured to get straight As or be the best player on your team, says Strongin. But the trouble is, these opportunities for external validation (like County Awards and trophies) are much rarer in adulthood.

'Beyond your performance review [at work], you’re not really getting that kind of feedback,' Strongin says. This can push the golden child to feel they need to shine in every aspect of life, from making a lot of money and getting regular promotions to being the go-to emotional support system for their friends and family.

2. Little sense of self

For many golden children, the dreams they’re expected to live up to may be their parents' dreams—and so, they have none of their own. 'The adults in their life are constantly violating any healthy boundary that should be in place by forcing their feelings and desires to be the focus of the child’s life,' explains Cole.

As a result, any goals the golden child tries to achieve based on their own desires may feel foreign to them, and they may feel less gratification while trying to pursue them.

3. People-pleasing

It can be hard for a golden child to shake their inclination towards pleasing others. 'Golden children may suffer from the disease to please, because striving to please the parental impactor is how they attempt to get their needs met,' says Cole. 'That's all they know.'

4. Taking on adult roles too soon

Golden children are often meant to realise their parents' dreams, so they tend to 'adult' sooner than necessary, according to Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, LCP, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond.

'This means a desire to not engage in 'unproductive' tasks—or tasks that may be seen as 'childish'—because those behaviours will not warrant praise,' Peifer says.

Rather than playing with their Barbies, golden children might be making their siblings lunch and dinner, taking care of all the household chores, or even providing financially for their family (in extreme cases, that is, like with child models or actors). 'Golden children are measured only by their success and achievement,' she says. 'So play can take a backseat.'

5. Fear of failure

Golden children 'may be more likely to develop anxiety and depression given the pressures to perform, achieve, and care for others,' says Piefer. Because golden children adopt this need to succeed before they're developmentally ready—and before they can handle the stresses that come along with that—they often describe feeling 'parentified and limited in their ability to explore, make mistakes, and be uncertain,' adds Piefer.

What are the effects of being a golden child?

Being the golden child in a family can lead to many long-term issues in relationships, friendships, parenting, work, and general self-worth and self-esteem.

'It is not uncommon for a golden [child] to have a narcissistic parent who is controlling and authoritative,' says Cole. 'The golden child becomes an extension of the narcissistic parent, which means never truly being known or loved for who you might be.' And even the golden child's accomplishments aren't their own, since their parents will likely take credit for their successes.

Growing up, a golden child who realises there is a discrepancy between how they actually are as a person and how they are touted to be can suffer from a lot of anxiety. They're likely constantly afraid of not meeting expectations, according to Smith.

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And developing a true sense of self can also be challenging, adds Smith. After all, if you never knew who you were without your parents imposing their expectations onto you, it can be hard to figure out what you actually want. Additionally, golden children might frequently overwork and try to be better than others in career settings because they might feel like 'good enough' isn’t, well, good enough, says Smith.

'Relationships can also be tough, because the golden child may struggle when they are not excessively praised by others or when they are provided constructive or critical feedback,' says Smith. Both compliments and criticism have a huge impact on the golden child's sense of self.

Often, this leads to an insecure attachment style in which two scenarios could happen simultaneously. In one, a golden child gets too clingy and people pleases, attaching themselves onto their partner for external validation; in another, they withdraw and become aloof when faced with criticism.

How can you overcome the effects of golden child syndrome?

The first step in dealing with any symptoms of golden child syndrome is to acknowledge what is going on in the first place. So, if you’re starting to recognise these signs, you’re headed in the right direction, says Strongin.

Next, it can be powerful to identify what your wants and needs are—and go after them, she says. If you were raised to believe you needed to be a doctor, and now, at age 35, you find yourself miserably working overnights at the hospital, take a pause. Assess if you really love what you’re doing, or if you’re living a version of your life your parents laid out for you.

Of course, this may not be easy for everyone, so journaling and meditation can go a long way in helping you find clarity about your needs, says Smith. Taking this time alone, without your friends and family whispering all of their opinions in your ear, can build up self-trust and confidence.

If you’re still struggling, therapy can also help you zero in on what you want to do, versus what you’re doing because your parents want you to do, says Strongin. A therapist can also help people who identify as golden children learn to celebrate themselves and find their self-worth from within, rather than relying on external sources.

'An exercise I might suggest is the next time you receive good news, whether it’s a new job or relationship, take time to enjoy it yourself,' Strongin says. 'Rather than calling your mum to get her reaction, let yourself feel proud first without anyone else.'

And because setting boundaries and maintaining them can be a challenge for golden children, it's important to learning how to advocate for your boundaries. This won’t just show people what you want, but it will allow you to give yourself the care and attention you deserve, says Strongin. Start small by saying no the next time a friend asks you to help them move during work hours or simply declining a dinner invite when your social battery is drained. The more you practice boundary-setting, the easier it will become.

Golden children are often rewarded for their ability to succeed the way their parents want them to. In adulthood, this can make confrontation (or even going against the grain with a bold haircut or piercing!) a truly terrifying experience. With therapy and some self-reflection, you can slowly start to take more risks and stand up for yourself.

While healing isn’t a linear journey—it's a ~process~ always!— take time to assess what feels good for you and go from there, says Strongin. Ultimately, you deserve to put yourself first and be your own golden child.

Meet the Experts: Marianna Strongin, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist based in New York City. Brandy Smith, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Alabama. Terri Cole, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, LCP, is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond.

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