All kids need encouragement from their parents. Praising a child when they excel or try something new is important for developing confidence and independence. But there’s a difference between supporting a child and believing that they can do no wrong.
The latter is what’s known as golden child syndrome and instead of having positive benefits for a child, it can greatly affect them negatively, even as adults. Here, psychotherapists explain what golden child syndrome is, the signs someone has it and how to overcome it.
What Is Golden Child Syndrome and What Causes It?
According to psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, LP, a golden child is thought to be exceptional by their parents (even if there is no foundation for this) and someone who can do no wrong.
There are several possible causes for golden child syndrome, and Spinelli says that it may stem from a cultural expectation. “Someone’s parents may say something like, ‘we worked really hard to come to this country, so you need to make sure you get good grades and are the best because we sacrificed for you,” she says. The intentions behind thinking and comments like this can be well-meaning, but they often have detrimental effects.
Child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist Gauri Khurana, MD, MPH, who is also a clinical instructor at Yale University School of Medicine, says that the primary cause for golden child syndrome is when one or both parents are narcissists or profoundly mentally ill, which then can create an unhealthy family role for their children.
“Narcissists are unable to put their children first and truly attend to them. Instead, they focus on themselves and children are viewed as extensions of the parent,” she says. “One child is often singled out as the ‘golden child’ because they have some characteristic that reminds the parent of themselves or they may have a talent that the parent can exploit for their own gain.”
Spinelli and psychotherapist Teresa Thompson, LCSW, both agree that narcissism is a primary cause of golden child syndrome. “The parent gets powerful feelings of esteem and self-worth from the child’s good qualities and accomplishments,” Thompson says. “Both directly and indirectly, they put a lot of pressure on the golden child to be the best at everything they do, behave well at all times, and live up to the ideals of who the parent thinks the child should be. The golden child is showered with praise for their successes, and punished with harsh criticism or cold disregard when they struggle or deviate from what’s expected.”
How Can Golden Child Syndrome Affect Someone as an Adult?
One’s childhood always has long-lasting effects, and being treated as a golden child is no different. Below are signs that someone may have been raised as the golden child in their family and how it can impact them as an adult.
1. Being the golden child makes it hard to deal with failure
Simply put, being raised to believe you can’t fail makes it a heck of a lot harder when you inevitably do. “Sooner or later the jig is up, and the golden child realizes they aren’t perfect. This makes their whole life and whole identity feel like a lie,” Thompson says. She explains that this can lead to feeling a deep sense of shame because the person feels that they are not who they are “supposed” to be. This can then lead to low self-esteem and depression.
Spinelli says that it can be difficult for someone with golden child syndrome to take constructive feedback because they aren’t used to needing correcting. “They also have extreme perfectionism in a very unhealthy way,” she says.
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2. It leads to needing to be the center of attention
Golden children are used to being the center of attention and Spinelli says this can cause them to crave attention as adults. She adds that they also tend to be people pleasers and crave external validation. “They’re constantly pleasing and accommodating,” Spinelli says. “Often, people with golden child syndrome have no concept of boundaries because they were not raised with healthy boundaries in place.”
3. It makes it difficult to determine your own goals
Dr. Khurana says that people with golden child syndrome are so used to trying to please their parents that they often have no goals of their own. “This becomes apparent once they have achieved their parents’ goals. They often have nothing that they are striving for and can come into my office reporting that they feel depressed because they don’t know what to do next,” she says. Often, Dr. Khurana says that people with golden child syndrome have no idea who they actually are because their sense of identity is tied so intricately to their parents.
4. Golden child syndrome makes relationships difficult
Dr. Khurana says that another sign that someone has golden child syndrome is that they tend to have co-dependent relationships. Again, since they were raised without healthy boundaries, this can bleed over into their own relationships as an adult.
In addition to this, Thompson says that many people with golden child syndrome have a fear of intimacy. “Because the golden child knows deep down they are not perfect, they view their truest, core self with disappointment and shame. It’s hard for them to let a romantic partner truly know them, because they believe that who they really are isn’t someone worth knowing,” she says. “They may struggle with having deep or long-lasting romantic relationships, or feel really lonely even when they are in a relationship.”
How To Overcome Golden Child Syndrome
Reading about the long-term effects of golden child syndrome can be overwhelming, but all three therapists say that overcoming it is possible. Dr. Khurana says that the first step is awareness. After all, you can’t address a problem until you acknowledge that it exists. She says that it can be very hard to undo the patterns that were ingrained in us as children and it often takes active work through therapy or reading books to learn different worldviews and to develop different, healthier habits.
Spinelli agrees that awareness is key. For example, if you find that you are constantly trying to please other people, it’s worth it to explore why you feel that way. “Then, next time you feel this way, you can take a minute to ask yourself, ‘wait, what do I want?’” she says. Knowing that your wants and needs are just as valid as the wants and needs of others is an important lesson.
Thompson says it’s also important to take the time to learn who you really are. “Learn what you love, learn what you’re bad at, and learn what you’re like when no one’s around to see you or judge you,” she says. “Embrace all of yourself with radical acceptance. I promise there is nothing about you so ugly, so strange or so broken that it can’t be a part of you.”
Since people with golden child syndrome tend to struggle with failure, Spinelli says it can be helpful to think more about what you define as “failure.” When you do miss the mark, she says this is a time to practice self-compassion.
It bears repeating that overcoming golden child syndrome isn’t easy, but it can be done. Working with a therapist can be especially helpful and can be the key to developing a healthier relationship with your parents, partner or future partners, and, most importantly, yourself.