Golden Child Syndrome: The Psychology Behind It & Its Effects In Adulthood
Our early experiences in life—the way we were raised, the things our parents said, the things they didn't—often shape who we become as adults and how we navigate the world. As children, most of us craved the attention of our parents and did what we could to get it. But what if that attention and validation only came when it was deemed "earned" or when we did something the "right" way?
When parents aren't self-assured enough to provide an environment that's conducive to the overall development of their children, it could lead to golden child syndrome.
What it means to be the "golden child."
A golden child is often the product of being raised in a "faulty" family dynamic where the child is expected to be very good at everything, never make mistakes, and feel highly obliged to meet the aspirations of their parents, according to board-certified psychiatrist Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, M.D.
"To be clearer, a golden child is held responsible for the family's success. Parents appreciate and adore them and, in a way, reinforces them to become better in whatever they are doing," she tells mbg. "A golden child is an example for others to follow. Even the siblings of the golden child are compared with them to create continuous pressure on their performance; to ensure that they shouldn't fail or fall short in their good behavior and accomplishments."
Children who possess the characteristics of a golden child are typically raised by narcissistic parents who are controlling and authoritarian, she adds. Because of how strict their parents are, these children are unlikely to feel safe enough to voice their own opinions or go against the rules of the home.
"Their main purpose in life is to satisfy their parents' needs and procure success, name, and fame for their family from outsiders. Parents consider [them] an asset to the family and always make them appear superior in front of others. The parents exert discipline and action and force the child to reinforce their desires. The child feels dutiful to satisfy what the parents want them to do, even if they do not like it," she says.
Indicators of golden child syndrome:
An overwhelming need to please
One of the main signs of golden child syndrome is the overwhelming need to please parents and/or other authority figures. "They make an extreme effort to appease their parents and satisfy all of their needs," explains Sanam Hafeez, M.D., neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind. "They will often obey their parents' ridiculous requests because they feel it's the only way to receive love from them."
Often required to grow up faster
Gonzalez-Berrios says golden children are usually the ones who end up having to step into a more mature role earlier in life. This could include getting a job earlier than their siblings and making the decision to contribute to the family finances and running of the household. They may also shun activities they consider childish and opt for more productive hobbies.
"Often golden children are parentified and help raise other children. For the most part, their parents act entitled to these actions, and the child is conditioned to not dissent," licensed therapist Billy Roberts, LISW, adds.
Super high achievers
"Golden children are often extraordinarily studious and love the competitive environment at school. These children work to receive the best grades possible with the purpose of showing their parents. Since the parents are narcissistic, they will go out of their way to brag about their golden child's academic achievements," Hafeez says.
Fear of failure
Hafeez goes on to say that since these children constantly seek perfection, starting from a very young age, there might be a fear of failure. When golden children fail to uphold their unrealistic expectations, they will become highly frustrated with themselves.
How the concept can be harmful & have effects later in life.
Being a golden child can have harmful effects later in life. For one, it often affects relationships in terms of connection and boundaries, Roberts says.
"On the one hand, the grown-up golden child might become excessively attached to another person, not knowing where they begin and end. For example, they might display excessive people-pleasing, seeking the validation they never received as a child. On the other hand, they might truly struggle with connection in relationships, seeking validation from outside sources like work and never becoming emotionally available to a partner," he explains.
This is a result of having an insecure attachment style with their parents, so they struggle to connect with others and either become too clingy because they strongly desire the love their parents failed to provide or completely withdrawn and aloof.
Another negative effect of this syndrome is growing up with low self-esteem. Since a golden child’s sense of self-worth is directly linked to their ability to please and their external achievements, as an adult, "they are likely to feel that they must present a perfect image of themselves to earn others' approval and love. These adults also lack a sense of identity because the only identity they formed during their childhood was through appeasing their parents, so they report feeling empty and unsure of themselves," Hafeez explains.
"These children will also grow into adults who become defensive when they receive criticism. Because golden children are accustomed to only receiving positive feedback from their loved ones, they struggle to accept any form of negative feedback as an adult. They will automatically believe that they have failed," she continues.
To cope with these failures, they may pick up unhealthy mechanisms, including gambling, drug addiction, or alcoholism.
In the long run, these children can also become manipulative and controlling. They overrun others to meet their own needs by exploiting and using others to meet their vested interests. They may also become passive-aggressive and jealous, Gonzalez-Berrios adds.
When narcissism comes into play.
The golden child is usually the offspring of one or two narcissistic parents, Hafeez says. These parents use their children to show off their own perfection. Narcissistic parents control and manipulate their child's life to ensure that the child upholds the parents' "perfect" image and reputation. Golden children cannot explore their identities because they spend all their time obeying their narcissistic parents. Since narcissists can only provide conditional love, golden children feel a severe amount of pressure to please their parents to be accepted and loved.
In some cases, these narcissistic parents don't even know what they're doing to their children. According to Roberts, they live in a world of delusions and lies they tell themselves to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
"It is this psychological aspect of their personality disorder that has one of the largest and most damaging impacts on their children. Imagine being a child completely unable to connect with your parents emotionally? In fact, the idea of vulnerability and emotionality is likely met with more emotional abuse," he says. "The narcissist enjoys pushing others to their breaking point."
Overcoming golden child syndrome.
While golden child syndrome may sound exceedingly terrible and likely to doom a person to become a dysfunctional human, that's not quite the case. Like most things, with a little self-care and intentional work, you can overcome being the golden child.
"Healing from golden child syndrome is an uphill task as you were conditioned to measure your worth by your achievements and success stories," Gonzalez-Berrios says. "You were never allowed to make mistakes, and you started believing that mistakes are bad and should be avoided at all costs, even if it robs your inner peace and happiness. When you [learn] that you need to let go of the faulty identity, you [often become] scared and vulnerable."
In order to heal from your golden child syndrome, you've got to accept it. Gonzalez-Berrios encourages working to "accept the darkest corners of yourself that are filled with pride and honor. Accept the narcissist in you to heal from within."
Therapy can be key to overcoming golden child syndrome, Roberts says. The golden child grows up in such a false and toxic reality, so they benefit from a safe and secure place to process and work on the trauma they experienced.
You should also consider setting boundaries in your life. "Boundaries can be incredibly hard for the golden child. They take on too much in toxic parts of life or give too little to healthier parts of life," Roberts continues. "Learning to say no is a skill that can be built." (Therapy can help with that, he adds.)
(Here's more on how to set healthy boundaries with parents.)
Finally, Roberts says it's important to manage shame and find self-compassion.
"Compulsive people-pleasing or perfectionism are based in shame. The idea is that doing more or taking on more will solve the shame. However, this is rarely the case," Roberts explains. "It's the same concept as an addict stopping a craving with more drugs. More people-pleasing or perfectionism calms shame for seconds, only leading to more shame when the outcome is seen as not good enough, which then leads to more perfectionism and people-pleasing. Learning to disrupt this cycle and intervene by valuing one's time, feelings, and self-care can be the ultimate goal of recovery."
The bottom line.
Notably, just because you display some of the characteristics of a golden child doesn't automatically mean you are one. It doesn't mean your parents were horrible narcissists who were hard on you. It also doesn't mean you'll forever have a hard time in your adult life.
If you are concerned, though, then it could be worth discussing it further with a professional. And as you do so, try to remember that your personality isn't unchangeable, and you are not your past traumas. The wounds weren't self-inflicted, but you'll have to tend to them with your own hands. Be gentle with yourself as you heal here.
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.