By now, you likely know that the ways in which you were raised can significantly affect how you navigate the world in both positive and negative ways. And as a child, you often craved validation and attention from your parents as a way to feel safe.
However, in certain cases, parents are unable to create an environment that lets kids thrive, learn from their mistakes, and feel confident enough in their choices. This can often lead to a number of issues, including low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, according to licensed psychologist Brandy Smith, PhD. And while being told you're not good enough is detrimental, the opposite isn't necessarily better. One of the most psychologically damaging upbringings is what's known as "golden child syndrome," where a child understands that they are the "chosen one" in their family to be perfect at all times and can do no wrong.
Meet the expert: Brandy Smith, PhD, is a psychologist who specializes in depression, LGBTQIA+ concerns, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD.
Terri Cole is a licensed psychotherapist and author.
Janelle S. Peifer, PhD, LCP, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Richmond.
This can cause huge issues later in life, from difficulty setting boundaries to excessive people-pleasing to instances where the golden child is unnecessarily hard on themselves when they don’t get external validation from others. Not to mention, siblings of those who suffer from golden child syndrome also have their own self-esteem issues to overcome.
If you think you may have been raised as the golden child in your family, Smith insists that all hope is not lost, especially if you recognize the signs and do the work to overcome golden child syndrome. Below is everything you need to know, including what golden child syndrome is, how to recognize it, what the effects are, and how to heal from it.
What is a golden child?
"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, but without a foundation for the attributed exceptionalism," explains Smith.
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 is always obliged to meet their parent’s desires, even if they don’t agree with them.
Since praise from parents can affect the golden child’s perception of self, this kind of family dynamic can also affect siblings. "The golden child feels pressure from the parents: If they want to continue to receive the love, attention, and affection that is showered on them, they have continue to achieve and behave in a way that the parents dictate," says Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. "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."
Basically, even though all the children may live in the same home, they could have completely different experiences because the golden child is seen as unable to do anything wrong. They're constantly touted as perfect, and are often held up as a comparison for how the siblings "should" be.
"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 being 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?
Signs of this syndrome include, but are not limited to the following:
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.
Disordered boundaries and no 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 empty inside when trying to pursue them.
"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."
Taking on adult roles too soon
Golden children often are meant to realize 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 behaviors will not warrant praise," Peifer says.
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.
And because golden children adopt this need to succeed before they're developmentally ready to, 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 narc 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, the golden child that realizes there is a discrepancy between how they actually are as a person and how they are being touted to be can suffer from a lot of anxiety. They're likely constantly afraid of not meeting expectations, according to Smith.
"On the other hand, a child who fully internalizes the messages they are receiving of being 'special' and 'exceptional' are more likely to display narcissistic tendencies because they stop seeing—if they ever did see it—that they actually are not as great as they have been told they are," Smith adds.
Other impacts are that developing a true sense of self can be challenging, and feeling satisfied with "good enough" can be incredibly difficult, adds Smith. After all, if you never knew who you were without your parents telling you what to believe, it can be hard to figure out what you actually want. Golden children also frequently overwork and try to be better than others in career settings.
"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 have a huge impact on the golden child's sense of self. Additionally, golden children might have a hard time focusing on other people's needs since they were taught to always zero-in on their own.
Essentially, this leads to an insecure attachment style in which two scenarios could happen simultaneously—one in which the golden child gets too clingy and people pleases, attaching themselves onto their partner for external validation. Or another when they withdraw and become aloof when faced with criticism.
How can one overcome the effects of golden child syndrome?
If, by reading this, you believe that you may suffer from golden child syndrome, understand that there are ways to heal from its effects. "Raising awareness is the first step to transformation because you need to acknowledge what’s causing you pain in order to change it," says Cole.
As an adult who has golden child syndrome, it's important to get to know yourself outside of who your parents told you to be. Shift your focus from one that's outward to please your parents to one that's inward to please yourself.
To actually go inward and discover who you are and what you want, Cole recommends a combination of journaling, meditating, and therapy, along with some space away from outside influences so you can really dig deep into your likes, dislikes, and desires.
Work through the sibling rivalry as a result of golden child syndrome:
And of course, please be gentle with yourself throughout the process. Change happens best when you are kind to yourself and understand your circumstances don’t have anything to do with you, and don’t reflect badly on you in any way. "As long as someone wants to change, change is possible," adds Smith.
Therapy can also be a useful tool to help you determine certain patterns that may be affecting you and causing discomfort in your daily life. "It can be a space to recognize, explore, and engage with deeply-rooted patterns that impact your expression of self," says Piefer. For golden children, some core aims may be to:
Set boundaries effectively to maintain autonomy and agency within your family system.
Identify habits of shame, avoidance of difficulty, or pleasing, and then engage in. behavioral activation and opposite action to bolster exposure to alternate ways of being.
Unpack the history of your identity that informs present functioning, and use insights to determine steps for moving forward.
Practice mindfulness and grounding to manage anxiety that arises.
Build and maintain support systems that encourage and support the messiness of authenticity, risk-taking, and imperfection.
Essentially, the biggest issues facing golden children include working through childhood trauma and understanding that boundaries can help them develop a sense of self outside of what their parents may want.
It’s definitely a process, but with time, patience, and work, the golden child can heal from these tendencies, and have much better relationships—with others and, most importantly, themselves.
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