What Is Golden Child Syndrome?

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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.

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 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. 
Unconditional Vs. Conditional Love 

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 showed no 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. 

Narcissistic Parents

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?

what is 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. They appear to be “perfect” to the outside world, 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.
signs of golden child syndrome

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. 

Low Self-Esteem

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. 

Relationship Problems

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.

Escape Behaviors 

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, these individuals may struggle immensely with constructive criticism or any other semblance of failure as adults. 

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.

scapegoat child

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. 

The parents might become angry at their son in a more dysfunctional family.

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 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 needs and 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 unable to recognize similarities in their 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 highly about their 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.

healing from golden child syndrome

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.

Seek Therapy

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 negatively affect 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 feel your emotions simply.

This pattern makes sense- you grew up being reinforced for doing. Chances are, you received messages about feeling weak or something to avoid altogether.

If your golden child tendencies persist, it may be time to consider integrating more mindfulness into your life.

Don’t turn to work or another task the next time you feel anxious. 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 remind yourself frequently that your feelings are valid and don’t change your worth. 

Final Thoughts on Golden Child Syndrome

Golden children may seem to 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. 

7 thoughts on “What Is Golden Child Syndrome?”

  1. Hi Alexander, thanks a lot for the good article, it is of great help.

    I like specially how it provides some tips to overcome the golden child syndrome.

    I was wondering if you know of any book that provides more tips on how to overcome the syndrome?

    Thanks a lot 🙂

    • Hi Roberto,

      There is not that much literature about this concept, but there are plenty of books written about Narcissistic parents. However, it is always my point of view that everyone’s story is different and might need a different approach. My tip would be to not do it alone and consider talking to a professional who can help you with this. A book can never replace a professional.

  2. Hi Alexander,
    What would suppose a Golden Child feels after the Narcissistic parent dies, and the Golden Child learns about the parent’s disorder. Or did they have some inkling all along? Are they forever tethered to the positive memory of the parent, afraid of somehow betraying them by accepting the truth?

  3. I’d like to share my perspective, having been the “scapegoat” in my family; my sister was/is the “golden child”.

    In my case, I was the one who was academically gifted and “shown off” to outsiders; however I was most definitely not the golden child, and I suffered greatly at the hands of my mother. I still do.

    I think the golden child/scapegoat dynamic became evident when I reached adulthood, having left home to go to university. I felt able to confront my mother for the first time upon my return. Up until then, I had always assumed that my mother was right, and that there must be something I was incapable of understanding as a mere child.

    My sister (the golden child) developed an eating disorder in her late teens. This is because my mother has always valued slimness. As an adult, my sister would conceal things from my mother if she thought it would displease her, she would lie and deceive convincingly.

    Outwardly, my sister never disagrees with my mother. If my mother was to say the sky was green, my sister would greet this information as a revelation, and go on to give a supporting opinion on the particular shade of green. This kind of behaviour is rewarded by my mother, with gifts and waiting on my sister hand and foot. From my observations, it’s like they feed off each other, boosting each others egos, with my sister benefitting most from the dynamic.

    I would describe my mother’s narcissism as “mild” but it has had far-reaching effects. My sister has developed narcissism to a greater degree. I believe this can happen (a person developing narcissitic traits) when you have a narcissitic parent. She lacks empathy, and can only “empathise” with situations that she has directly experienced herself or that would benefit her in someway.

    In her work environment, she is Machiavellian. The way she speaks about her coworkers are that they either serve her interests or they present an obstacle. If a person is an obstacle, she has mounted malicious campaigns to get rid of those employees. A person who was helpful to her career, at an earlier point in time, could become an obstacle later on, and they would be the next target. Her job is not even one that you would associate with having ambition or power, so the backstabbing and manoeuvring is striking out of place in a job that is perceived as supportive and nurturing.

    After having a child, she alienated the child’s father and completely erased him from the child’s life. At the time, she accused the father of domestic violence and I believed her, but I now think that perhaps she was concerned that her bond / influence over the child would be weakened if the father was in their lives.

    My sister also did not want a sibling for the child, she blames the child for this, saying the child would not be able to handle the loss of attention, but the child is extremely generous and loving, with a lot of compassion for others. I believe this is another example of my sister being unable to empathise with a person who is not herself. She’s assumes the child feels as she would feel. She also would not know how to navigate a situation with two children, one would need to become a scapegoat.

    Her child is a wonderful person, but the child is growing up now and starting to develop a personality and opinions of their own. My sister’s reaction to this has been one of displeasure, countered by exerting more control over the child. It seems that she wants a child who will tell her what shade of green the sky is; to replicate the same relationship that my sister has with our mother, in other words, an unhealthy relationship where the child is just an extension of the mother. With each bolstering the other’s ego.

    My sister and my mother are constantly brainwashing the child with the notion that a child will always put their mother before others, and that there is no bond stronger than that. So the child is actively being taught to disregard their own emotions, bonds and fellow feeling for others.

    My sister became a narcissist because of her golden child relationship with our mother. But she has always lacked empathy.

    I believe my sister’s child has a strong sense of empathy and self-awareness, so I hope the child will grow up to be healthy and happy, once she is beyond my sister’s control.

    • My family experience after my father died was that my brother and mother definitely fed off each other, also. They acted like a couple of love struck teenagers. It was nauseating at times. Brother was always a spineless follower and still is. Many years ago, I was mistakenly complimented by what I believed to be his admiration of me. I thought we were quite close. But after he connected with his loser friends, their gravitational pull was stronger and we slowly drifted apart. This distance between us increased after the old man died, and there was an inheritance on the table. Brother became a sort of a boy toy for his mommy, each delighting in the others’ attention. I mostly got over the hurt from all of this, once I started learning about the dynamics.

  4. I’ve been reading about golden child syndrome recently after years of studying NPD with regard to my emotionally, psychologically, and physically abusive mother. It has been hard to clearly identify at times who was the GC and who was the scapegoat. I believe because I was an unplanned pregnancy carried to term through my mother’s guilt about abortion that I came into this world the SG. But as my older brother started to get into his teens, I think he shook off my Nmom’s attempts to pedestalize him, and resenting everything about her husband, she had no choice but to turn to me. All through my teens I was quiet, a porcelain doll of perfect makeup and clothes. My grades were so-so, therefore my looks were all I had going for me. Anyway, my SG bro and I were never close, and he made the decision to remove us from his life. It’s a long story, but I understand his decision and hope he is doing well. My mother, however, brings him up often despite him not talking to her in decades. She recently told me she removed him from her will and that everything goes to me. Like, thank you, I guess? I am so uncomfortable with these conversations that I am going to tell her to stop talking about him and her will, but anyway. I look back on my life and realized how entitled I felt and I am grateful to my husband for loving me anyway. I am so tired of her act (and mine too), of her gossip, and mostly I am so tired of her pretending like things have always been great between us. She was horribly cruel and abusive but she took care of our material needs and thinks that makes up for it because she grew up dirt poor and homeless at times. It’s exhausting. Thanks for sharing this info.

  5. Leesa, just a thought. When your mother passes on, how would you feel about sharing your inheritance with your brother no strings attached? That would show him that you are not like your mother and believe in fairness and kindness.
    Being cut out of a will just for being a scapegoat is beyond cruel to your brother even if you may feel at times he deserves it (that will be your mother speaking)
    I know what I am taking about here as I too am a scapegoat and my older sister went from being the forgotten child to the golden child. At first I was chosen as the golden child but I also refused that role.


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