What is 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome'?
It's not what you're thinking. 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome' isn't just a catch-all term for the eldest girl in a family with more than one child. It isn’t just about gender, birth order, or family composition. It’s about being the oldest girl in the family and feeling as if you were told - explicitly or implicitly - that your role was to look after everybody else. That your wishes or needs weren’t relevant or valid, and that your energy should be expended in making sure that everybody else was ok. In the last week I've spoken to Newsweek and Screenshot about this phenomenon. Here's what I had to say:
What does 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome' look like?
There’s a wide spectrum of responses when a child is given the role of caregiver. At one end of the spectrum, we might see an ‘eldest daughter’ who becomes a people-pleaser or perfectionist. They become used to ignoring their own needs and prioritising the needs of others.
At the other end of the spectrum we might see an ‘eldest daughter’ who acts out or rebels, based on frustration or anger at the situation.
What leads to the eldest daughter taking on this role in a family?
Practical/financial reasons - if resources are tight and parents are working long hours, then it often feels like it’s acceptable to ask the oldest child to ’step up’ into a parenting type role
Parental availability - I didn’t want to use the word ‘absent parents’ here as that sounds critical. But there might be other reasons why a parent is unavailable to fulfil their role. For example, if they’re struggling to cope with physical or mental health difficulties.
Gender expectations - there’s definitely a social expectation at play. An expectation that a girl, a daughter, will most likely step into the nurturing, caring selflessness that might be expected of them. And that they will do so without complaint.
How does 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome' impact on us as we are growing up?
It can stop us from really figuring out what we need and how we deserve to be treated. This can make it difficult for us to make choices.
We are likely to feel as if we don’t have a voice, and that we should suppress our feelings. This can lead to anger and resentment which can fester and lead to physical or emotional difficulties.
If our needs are unmet when we are growing up, then this can be a contributing factor towards unhealthy coping strategies in adulthood, including addiction.
How can we heal from 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome'?
Finding ways to understand what you need and deserve. This might be through mindfulness or therapy. It could involve connecting with your 'inner child', a younger version of yourself, to explore how she felt and what she needed. This isn’t about assigning blame. It’s simply about understanding why we feel the way that we do. It can help us to entangle our feelings and figure out which ones belong in the present and which ones we can let go of from the past.
Acknowledging the role of your family unit. This really depends on what you need in order to heal. It might feel tempting to want to confront your family, but it’s worth asking yourself some questions first. What are you likely to achieve, and will it offer you what you need? If not, then consider alternative ways for you to explore and release any pent up frustration.
Exploring and strengthening your boundaries. If you weren’t offered choices or opportunities when you were growing up, then it’s likely that you struggle to say no. Think about the impact that this has on your everyday life. You might gain satisfaction from doing things for other people. But it’s possible that this is layered on top of other feelings that you have suppressed beneath. Maybe anger, frustration or resentment. Ask yourself what it might feel like to say no, or to make choices for yourself. It might feel scary or unfamiliar. But it’s a way of building up your own sense of who you are and how you deserve to be treated. It sends a signal to those around you, and shows that you are not a doormat or pushover.
Embracing opportunities to feel carefree and creative. If you were asked to be an adult when you were still a child, then you may have missed out on the exploration and creativity that forms an important part of child development. Taking risks and trying new things are important ways of figuring out who we are and what we like.