Last Updated on August 17, 2021 by Alexander Burgemeester
Golden child syndrome can occur when a designated child becomes responsible for all of the family’s successes. This child tends to be exceptional in one or more ways (beautiful, intelligent, athletic), and the family uses this “asset” as leverage for appearing superior to the outside world.
Unfortunately, being the golden child can have a steep cost- in many cases, this child develops various psychological problems due to this excessive pressure.
In this article I will explain what Golden Child syndrome is and how parentally love and affection influence the development of a child.
Table of Contents:
Understanding Family Structures
All children are born having basic needs, like food and safe sleep. But their needs extend beyond nutrition and shelter. Research on early childhood development also shows that children need stability, consistency, love, emotional support, and positive role models to thrive.
It isn’t a secret that all children want to feel loved by their parents. Children want attention from a very young age, and they try to please their primary caregivers to earn it. Additionally, they rely on their caregivers to help them build their self-esteem and confidence.
Unconditional Vs. Conditional Love
In a healthy family structure, love is unconditional. That means that love underlies every behavior, reaction, or consequence assigned by the parent. So even if a parent feels upset or disappointed with their child, it doesn’t change their love for them.
In parenting, unconditional love can mean:
- Accepting your children for who they are.
- Respecting your children for their autonomy and preferences.
- Wanting the best for your child no matter what.
- Appropriately disciplining behavior without shaming or criticising your child.
But in toxic family structures, love is often conditional. It’s earned based on strangely rigid rules (and those rules can often change at a moment’s notice). As a result, children may feel confused and neglected- they don’t know what mood their caregiver will be in, so they must engage in various guessing games to secure their approval.
In parenting, conditional love can mean:
- Expecting your child to have specific interests or preferences.
- Assuming you know what’s best for your child at all times.
- Pushing your child into a specific direction without their input.
- Only praising your child in public.
- Only feeling like you love your child when they perform well or act appropriately.
- Feeling competitive with your child.
- Criticizing, belittling, or condemning your child when they make a mistake.
According to Stephen Rosen, LMFT, unconditional positive regard is another important consideration. Unconditional positive regard means treating the other person with love and respect while also maintaining your own boundaries. As a parent, it means attuning to your child’s wants while also keeping them (and you!) safe and protected.
Secure Vs. Insecure Attachment
John Bowlby was the pioneering attachment researcher and theorist. He extensively studied separation anxiety between young children and their primary caregivers. Bowlby theorized that the relationship between baby and caregiver fundamentally affects subsequent relationships later in life.
Mary Ainsworth continued refining Bowlby’s work by studying how toddlers reacted to being removed from their caregivers. In her study, she had mothers briefly leave the room and leave their child with a stranger over several short episodes.
Ainsworth found that children fell into three key categories:
Secure attachment: These children showed distress when their mother left the room. They didn’t want to play with a stranger, but they were reasonably friendly around them when their mother was present. They were happy and positive when their mother returned.
Anxious attachment: These children showed elevated levels of distress when their mother left the room. They avoided and appeared to fear the stranger. When their mother returned, they approached them but often resisted physical contact or even pushed her away.
Avoidant attachment: These children didn’t show any real signs of distress when their mother left. They played well with the stranger. When the mother returned, they didn’t show much excitement. Both the mother and stranger appeared to have equal roles in being able to comfort the child.
Although Ainsworth didn’t discuss this style in her original research, Main & Solomon later introduced the disorganized attachment style, which refers to fluctuating responses to distress. In some cases, children exhibit evident anxiety and desire to be with their caregivers. In other cases, the children appear resistant and standoffish.
Secure attachment comes from having reliable, consistent parenting. Children must believe their needs will be met. They need to know they can rely on their caregivers. As you can see, this “trust” emerges during the early years- while some research suggests attachment styles can change over time, the work can be tedious and challenging.
One or more narcissistic parents can create a toxic narcissistic family system. A narcissistic parent will use their children to fuel their narcissistic supply. In other words, the children are expected to compromise their own identities to satisfy the narcissist’s needs.
The family abides by many unspoken roles, including:
- Needing to submit to the narcissist’s rules, regardless of how erratic they may be.
- Feeling pressured to take sides on every opinion.
- Blaming someone else (or something else) for problems.
- Avoiding any feelings (only the narcissist is allowed to have emotional needs).
- Competiting with one another for love and attention.
- Denying abuse or dysfunction.
In these families, children rarely have permission to explore their own needs and identities. Instead, they spend most of their time trying to appease the narcissist. As a result, they often feel a pervasive sense of shame, helplessness, confusion, and rage- even if they cannot readily identify those emotions.
Narcissists will claim to love their children, but their love is conditional, distorted, and rooted in how well you can conform to their preferences.
What Is the Good Child Syndrome?
Most parents want to see their children thrive and flourish. In fact, the desire to see your child succeed is a normal desire of parenting. Moreover, even good parents sometimes have unrealistic expectations for their children.
But good child syndrome can happen when a child consistently reinforces their parent’s desires for them. These children don’t just want to satisfy their parents- they feel obligated and responsible for doing so. It becomes a significant part of their identity, meaning it affects their overall development.
In narcissistic families, the good child is an extension of the narcissist. They emulate their parent’s perfection- the parent can proudly show this child off and say, look at how great I am! Look at how great my child is!
What Are the Symptoms of Golden Child Syndrome?
So what is golden child syndrome? A healthy child usually wants to succeed and make their parents proud. Golden children take it up a few notches. They may present as anxious children early in life. Similarly, they experience immense anxiety and guilt when they fail to meet certain expectations.
As the golden child grows, they often present as highly perfectionistic, well-behaved, and mature. To the outside world, they appear to be “perfect,” and other family or friends may praise the parents accordingly.
Some other signs of golden child syndrome include:
- Making excessive efforts to appease or satisfy their parents.
- Striving to get the best grades in school and often studying late into the night or panicking about test grades.
- Committing to being the best athlete and devoting hours to practicing.
- Only having productive, meaningful hobbies.
- Helping raise other children in the household.
- Performing the majority of household tasks, even if the skills are not age-appropriate.
- Getting a job early on and contribute the majority of their paycheck to the family.
- Avoiding any rebellious or spontaneous behavior to avoid hurting their parents.
- Consistently covering up or lying about a parent’s behavior.
What Are the Effects of Golden Child Syndrome Later in Life?
Golden children can face many challenges as they grow up. Often, their “need to please” extends into their adult years.
A golden child’s self-confidence will fluctuate based on their external accomplishments. They often feel they must perform well to earn approval and be loved. Yet, many times, they report feeling a sense of hollowness. They also identify with feeling like they have no identity outside of their accomplishments.
A golden child may have difficulty connecting with others, particularly if they had insecure attachments with their caregivers. Sometimes, they may become overly clingy to others, as they want the love they never had growing up. In other cases, they may be aloof, withdrawn, and disconnected- they don’t trust others to meet their needs.
Compulsive Work Tendencies
If a golden child excelled in school, they might continue down that trajectory in the workplace. They may spend many hours in the office, climbing up the corporate ladder, trying to become as successful as possible. Others will likely reinforce their efforts (you have such great work ethic! You’re killing it! You’re such a boss!), which can mimic the same praise they heard as a child.
Many golden children turn to drugs, gambling, alcohol, or food to cope with all the pressure. They can often conceal these behaviors- they might present as high-functioning to the outside world while struggling internally. Other times, the addiction is apparent, and others can’t understand “what happened.”
Golden children rely on what their parents or society expects from them. According to Cynthia Halow, founder of Personality Max, “as a child grows older, they begin to feel empty and incapable of meeting other people’s expectations. Because they are concerned about meeting their parents’ expectations, they frequently find it difficult to make decisions that should be simple.”
Desire For Constant Attention
Because the golden child received so much validation during childhood, they are used to people fawning over them. It can be jarring- and devastating- when they don’t have others praising them constantly. As a result, some golden children will “act out” in ways that will help them be rescued. Or, they may continue working hard and achieving great things to receive more praise.
Resistant/Combative to Feedback
Kimberly Perlin, LCSW, acknowledges that golden children have “high expectations that one’s loved ones will give unlimited approval and attention. They have little experience in dealing with negative feedback or disagreement.” Therefore, as adults, these individuals may struggle immensely with constructive criticism or any other semblance of failure.
What Is a Scapegoat Child?
We’re great parents, but you never listen to us!
He’s a lost cause, and we’ve done everything we can to help him.
She’s so defiant. No matter what we do, she’s always causing problems.
We can’t understand why he’s so angry all the time!
Dysfunctional caregiving systems often scapegoat children to conceal the family’s problems.
Anyone can become the scapegoat, but likely candidates include children who have developmental delays, behavioral issues, academic concerns, or health problems. In other words, these children may already have a “strike against them,” but the family blows that issue out of proportion to convince themselves (and others) that they are the key problem.
In a narcissistic family, the scapegoat is used to absolve the narcissist of their erratic and abusive behavior. Instead of looking inward, the narcissist blames the scapegoat child for causing so much turmoil.
Scapegoats can have an advantage over golden children. They are used to being ostracized and shamed. They are familiar with feeling like they continue to disappoint others. As a result, they may be bolder and more resilient- in many cases, they aren’t afraid to fight back or shed light on their family’s dysfunction to others.
The scapegoat doesn’t have to be another child. In some cases, it’s the narcissist’s spouse or another relative.
Can a Golden Child Become a Scapegoat (or Vice Versa?)
While some family roles may seem particularly rigid, these roles can change to meet a dysfunctional parent’s needs. In some cases, the golden child can become a scapegoat when they rebel against their role or can no longer fit within the constraints of their role.
For example, let’s say a star athlete becomes injured and can no longer play sports. He becomes depressed and doesn’t want to spend time with his family or friends. His grades also suffer. In a healthy family system, the parents would likely try to console their child and help him get adequate support. They would empathize with his struggles and try to help him cope with this transition.
In a more dysfunctional family, the parents might become angry at their son. They might blame him for overreacting and insist that he “get over it.” They may even accuse him of intentionally causing the injury or exacerbating the symptoms. But, instead of validating his feelings, they will shame him for having them.
In another case, a golden child might start feeling angry towards her parents during her teenage years. She no longer wants to be the “good girl.” She starts spending more time with her friends and begins dating someone behind her family’s back. She experiments with alcohol and drugs. In a healthy family system, the parents would likely identify these changes as normal teenage development. They might try to communicate more with their daughter or suggest family counseling. However, they will continue setting boundaries to avoid enabling problematic behavior.
In a dysfunctional family, the parents would begin criticizing their daughter. They may become explosive and volatile- they might also call her names and try to demean her choices. They will assume the daughter is intentionally trying to “punish” them rather than reflect on her desire for independence.
At times, the scapegoat can also quickly transform into the golden child. This can happen when other people start noticing the scapegoat’s positive qualities. For instance, if several teachers or coaches start praising a scapegoat’s talent, the parents may suddenly see and change their tune. Or, if another child takes the place of the scapegoat, the scapegoat may graduate into the golden child role.
What Is the Only Child Syndrome?
Only children tend to get a bad stereotype. They are often deemed to be bossy, selfish, and socially awkward. The premise is, if parents spend all their time and resources on one child, it can result in catastrophic results for that child’s development.
Research shows that these statements are largely overstated. Most only children are well-adjusted and show similar temperaments as children with siblings.
However, being an only child may be disadvantageous in dysfunctional family systems. If a parent forces them into either the golden child or scapegoat role, there is limited to no support for that child. They have no siblings to act as a buffer or confidante for their pain. Similarly, they have nobody their age to validate their experience- in their adult years, they won’t have that sibling who can understand what home life truly felt like.
Does The Golden Child Become a Narcissist?
According to Rich Heller, MSW, CPC, ELI MP, “the obvious impact of Golden Child Syndrome is first that the golden child becomes a narcissist.”
Consider it from this angle: the narcissist essentially grooms the golden child to become their clone. The golden child represents all that is “perfect” within the narcissist’s delusion. Therefore, this child grows up witnessing their family’s dysfunction, and they may repeat these same patterns unknowingly.
Heller goes on to say that, “If they do not become a narcissist, they become emotionally crippled to the extent that they have difficulty truly connecting and empathizing with others. They also will necessarily be disconnected from the parent who was not the narcissist, as that parent tends to bear the brunt of the blame for everything that went wrong in the narcissist’s life. In being disconnected from their other parent, they’re disconnected from a part of themselves. As a result, they have an ongoing resentment of an aspect of themselves.”
What Is A Golden Child Narcissist?
A golden child narcissist often becomes narcissistic in response to their upbringing. Because they received so much attention and praise, they have an inflated ego about themselves. As a result, they may feel entitled to great things, and they might overstep others to get what they want.
In the case of classic narcissism, the golden child simply becomes self-centered and manipulative. They exploit others to meet their own needs, and they brag about themselves incessantly.
Sometimes, a golden child becomes a covert narcissist. They may present as insecure or submissive, but they are still self-centered and somewhat removed from reality. A golden child who becomes a covert narcissist may exhibit symptoms like:
- Passive-aggression, particularly when confronted or given feedback.
- Ongoing rage with their parents (while being unable to recognize similarities in their own behavior).
- Constant self-criticism.
- Pervasive feelings of emptiness or depression.
- Extreme jealousy of others whom they deem superior.
- Cognitive empathy and empathy that’s geared towards their own self-gain.
In almost all cases, a golden child narcissist will not recognize their family system as flawed. They may speak very highly about their own parents and report that their upbringing was happy and loving.
How Do You Heal From Golden Child Syndrome?
Healing from golden child syndrome is challenging. You’ve spent your entire life measuring your worth by your accomplishments and talents. Learning how to let go of that identity can feel vulnerable and scary. Here are some steps to consider taking.
Accept the Narcissist for Who They Are
It’s reasonable to hope that the narcissist might come around and understand how damaging their behavior can be. But this desire is largely unrealistic. Most narcissists are set in their ways and have little incentive to change.
Accepting means recognizing that people are who they are. It means letting go of the need to control their behavior. Of course, this shift takes time and willingness- you won’t reach this place of acceptance overnight. But accepting the narcissist’s personality will help you become less reactive to them.
Therapy can help you work on lingering golden child symptoms like anxiety, perfectionism, and the need for control. It can also help you untangle some of the complicated feelings you might have about your past.
If you are in a committed relationship, you may need to consider couples therapy. Even if you aren’t aware of it, you might be negatively affecting the dynamic you have with your spouse.
Practice Saying No
Many golden children become people-pleasers in their adult life. They don’t want to disappoint others. And so, they oblige and say yes to every task, even when it’s unreasonable or taxing.
You can start setting boundaries for yourself by saying no to requests that no longer serve your best interest. At first, saying no will feel uncomfortable. But, according to Billy Roberts, LISW-S, “the best way to heal from golden child syndrome is to learn to start saying no. Say it, sing it, buy the t-shirt. Saying no builds the skill of acknowledging and standing up for your own needs. Learning what you want to say no to and finding ways to do so is one small step towards reclaiming one’s identity.”
You may experience guilt. But remember that you need to prioritize your own well-being. Doing so frees up your energy to say yes when it matters most.
Try New Things (That You Might Fail At)
Exposing yourself to novelty and risk can help you work through perfectionistic tendencies. You need to become comfortable with failure- it shouldn’t be a terrifying fear.
Sign up for a class where you have no experience. Allow yourself to ask for help, even if it feels vulnerable. Commit to trying new things that will require you to be humble.
Validate Yourself Often
You need to recognize that your worth doesn’t just come from outward success. You have innate worth, and it’s important to honor it.
You might start by practicing positive affirmations like:
- I am worthy and loved.
- Everyone makes mistakes, and I can learn from my mistakes.
- I trust that I am growing and learning.
- I am good enough.
- I am allowed to be kind to myself.
Practice Sitting With Uncomfortable Feelings
If you continue doing, doing, doing, it often comes from a place of not knowing how to simply feel your emotions. This pattern makes sense- you grew up being reinforced for doing. Chances are, you received messages about feelings being weak or something to avoid altogether.
If your golden child tendencies continue persisting, it may be time to consider integrating more mindfulness into your life. The next time you feel anxious, don’t turn to work or another task. Instead, try to breathe and identify your feelings. Label them. Make room for them. The next time you feel sad, don’t bury yourself with performing. Just allow yourself to be sad.
Embracing this mentality will take time. You may have to frequently remind yourself that your feelings are valid, and they don’t change your worth.
Final Thoughts on Golden Child Syndrome
Golden children may seem like they have it easier, especially when comparing their role to a scapegoat. But the pressure, constant attention, and high expectations often cause immense pain.
Many golden children struggle with feeling incompetent and inferior, and anything less than perfection often feels like a complete failure.
Learning how to break free from this mindset takes time. But, if you identify as being a golden child, remember that you have the power to take your life back.
You no longer have to prove your worth to anyone. You are valid and loveable- just as you are.