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The Heavy Crown: The Blessings and Burdens of “Eldest Daughter Syndrome”

Eldest daughters often find themselves perched on a throne of responsibility with a crown that is both a blessing and a burden.

An eldest daughter feeling neglected because parents are focused on her siblings
Many shared experiences of first-born daughters are clear reflections of eldest daughter syndrome, such as being overly independent. Image: Shutterstock/chalermphon_tiam

First-born daughters finally feel seen all over social media, thanks to a new scientific study that sheds light on the pop psychology term “eldest daughter syndrome.”

“Eldest daughter syndrome,” while not a formal diagnosis, is a term used to describe a social phenomenon in which first-born daughters mature earlier on in life. They often take on the role of the mentor or caretaker of their siblings. However, eldest daughter syndrome is not necessarily the result of being treated like Cinderella is treated by her family. It also does not imply parents treating their children unequally.

Even in the absence of evident childhood trauma, eldest daughters often find themselves perched on a throne of responsibility with a crown that is both a blessing and a burden. This makes it common for eldest daughters to experience a sort of “parentification” that can have life-altering effects.

The concept of eldest daughter syndrome has been trending on social media for a while. However, recent evidence suggests that it may be much more than just a trend. A February 2024 research study explains the scientific rationale behind the distinctive experiences of the eldest daughter.

Scientific Insights Into Understanding Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Researchers at UCLA conducted a longitudinal study that followed 253 mothers and their children for 15 years. The study’s results suggest that eldest daughter syndrome may stem from prenatal psychological distress in the mother. Female children born to mothers who endured this sort of distress during pregnancy were found to undergo earlier adrenarche.

Adrenarche is what facilitates the social-behavioral transition from childhood to adulthood. It speeds up social maturation but not sexual maturation. The study found that first-born daughters of mothers who experienced prenatal distress had significantly higher adrenal pubertal development scores, as measured by a biomarker of adrenarche. In contrast, there were no such associations discovered in boys or in later-born girls. In both girls and boys, the timing of gonadal pubertal development (sexual maturation) did not shift due to prenatal distress. Additionally, the study controlled for postnatal adversity, distress experienced by mothers after offspring has already been born. This control ensured that the effects measured were the contribution of prenatal adversity.

Psychological distress primarily includes maternal mood disturbance. The researchers working on the study say this mood disturbance may signal risk and resource availability to the fetus. The proposal that resulted from the study is an evolutionary framework stating that human mothers may mold the timing of the maturation of first-born daughters in order to optimize their own reproductive success. The evidence-based framework suggests that it is in the mother’s adaptive interest that her daughter socially matures more quickly. This would mean that the daughter could allomother her younger siblings starting at an earlier age. The biological reason for these effects being seen in daughters but not sons is most likely a result of daughters being more directly involved in childcare.

Shared Experiences of Eldest Daughters on Social Media

So, what do these results mean for eldest daughters worldwide? Firstly, it is important to note that many other factors, including family dynamics, culture, and privilege, can also play a role in shaping the lives of eldest daughters. In addition, though the study only found correlations between being the first-born daughter and maturing earlier, the responsibilities that come with being the eldest sibling are by no means exclusive to daughters. For example, in households facing economic struggles, various cultures designate huge responsibilities to the eldest son. This not only includes assisting with his younger siblings’ upbringings but also helping lift the household’s financial burden once he is old enough to enter the workforce. However, the research study’s results can be an important factor that accounts for a few of the commonalities that first-born daughters have identified on social media.

One of these shared experiences is the feeling of having grown up much earlier on in life. Another is feeling the obligation to take on more and more responsibility and be the person everyone can rely on to save the day. One Reddit user phrases it as the struggle of understanding that one “can’t swoop in to ‘save people’ every time [one] sees people suffer or make decisions that would cause suffering.” Another Reddit user writes, “Eldest daughter here of 3. My husband doesn’t understand why I can’t just take it easy or chill… I derive my worth and value from what I do for others.” Constantly feeling the need to correct others can stem from a childhood of feeling responsible for the success of one’s younger siblings.

(Illustration by Cate Wollert)

Warning Signs of Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Furthermore, in a viral video, licensed marriage and family therapist Kati Morton breaks down the complex concept of eldest daughter syndrome into eight major warning signs:

  1. You have an intense feeling of responsibility
  2. You are an overachiever, Type A, and very driven
  3. You worry a lot and probably have anxiety
  4. You struggle with people-pleasing behaviors
  5. You have a hard time placing and upholding boundaries
  6. You resent your siblings and family
  7. You struggle with feelings of guilt
  8. You have a difficult time in your adult relationships

Kati Morton’s list summarizes what many eldest daughters have been sharing online. It also brings up how childhood experiences of first-born daughters can have long-term effects that shape their personalities, mental health, and relationships, lasting well into adulthood. Perfectionism, anxiety, resentment, and people-pleasing are often difficult, long-lasting effects. Other reported effects include having trouble being in a serious relationship due to growing up being hyper-independent, experiencing burnout as an adult, and several more. Positive effects may include independence, maturity, and relatively greater economic success. Studies have shown that eldest daughters are statistically the most ambitious and well-qualified individuals in a family.

Eldest Daughters’ Personal Perspectives

Here’s what some eldest daughters have to say about their favorite and least favorite parts of being the first-born children, and how this unique experience has shaped their personalities.

As for favorite parts of being the eldest daughter, many highlighted early development of maturity, responsibility, and leadership skills. Respondents’ least favorite parts mostly included self-blame and an overwhelming amount of responsibility, often with little appreciation in return. Lastly, the bits on personality focused on maturity, people-pleasing, and independence. Some highlights from the exact words of respondents are included below:

  • “I’m a people-pleasing mentally ill overachiever who doesn’t know how to regulate her emotions at all and tries desperately to be independent as to not get close to or rely on anyone because everyone I was meant to rely on failed me but I fail at not having a mental breakdown every few seconds over not having a support system.”
  • “The way I act… I’m overly controlling, my way or the highway. I criticize people without the constructive part. At the same time, I feel responsible for making sure people around me aren’t hurt even at times when they deserve to be.”
  • “I guess being an older sister translates to not just my brother, but like so many people I know. Like my brother’s friends, my family friends, and also just my friends’ friends.”
  • “I like that it’s given me a sense of inherent desire to be a leader. Hard part is that I tend to place a lot of blame on myself because I take responsibility for my siblings.”
  • “Favorite thing is generally more freedom since I’m considered more mature. Least favorite thing is having to do more “work”/stuff around the house. It has played a role in my personality because I think I’m better with younger kids because of it.”
  • “My favorite thing about being an eldest daughter is that I can kind of be in charge of my sister. My least favorite thing is that parents favor the younger child.”
  • “I think my favorite part of being the eldest daughter is being able to watch my little sister grow. I can also help her not make the same mistakes as me. The responsibilities have helped me appreciate the world and become more independent.”
  • “Sometimes I feel like I was cheated out of my childhood. My parents stopped really paying attention to me after my brother was born. But then they didn’t really pay that much attention to him either, leaving me to teach him stuff. Like I taught him to count and English in its entirety. But then when he got into fights at preschool, it was somehow my fault. It was hard because favoritism meant that he always had his way at home.”
  • “Just throughout our lives, in so many ways, my brother has hated me for scolding him. Have you heard of bad cop/good cop parenting? It’s like when one parent always acts sympathetic/lenient towards a child so the other parent has to step in. But then the kids dislike that one. Well, I was in the bad cop role because no one else was going to teach him any morals.”
  • “I don’t have any family friends who are older than me, so I’m always the one setting the example. It’s terrifying because I have to put them in line because no one else will. I have to be perfect and set a good example. My parents are also much more lenient with my sibling. They don’t care if he stays up till midnight blasting music because he’s just a kid. Whereas when I was little, if I so much as made a noise when he (as a toddler) was sleeping, then I’d be in so much trouble for just being a kid. And the thing is they’d always act so nice in front of other people. People have known me for a really long time but wouldn’t really know all this about me. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Coping Strategies + How to Heal

Though there are positives that come with being the eldest daughter, it also comes with immense pressure and responsibility. Understandably, such conditions can take a toll on one’s mental health, especially in more extreme, traumatic households. The first-born daughter often feels the need to be independent and to maintain the label of the exemplar child.

Sometimes, it becomes difficult to give yourself grace as an eldest daughter. The feelings can result from parents, siblings, societal expectations, all of the three, or none of them. Sometimes, it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. But over time, people’s positive comments can become a part of your personality and identity. You become afraid to let it go. Perhaps, recognizing these signs is the first step to ensure that eldest daughters don’t feel bad taking care of themselves or not being able to devote themselves to their siblings. It’s important to care for siblings. However, just as being the eldest can make one independent, being the youngest who is always cared for can make one dependent. Both extremes of the spectrum can have negative effects as one grows up.

One of the best ways to cope with eldest daughter syndrome is to set boundaries and limit your responsibilities in relation to your siblings. It is vital that parents and other family members split household tasks evenly among everyone. This avoids overburdening the eldest sibling. Self-care, self-love, letting loose, and having fun are vital to help reenergize yourself and keep in touch with your inner child. In more extreme circumstances, or if you are dealing with trauma, speaking to a therapist is a healthy and perfectly acceptable decision.

Say “Thank You!”

Social media is notably helping eldest daughters feel recognized by connecting them with users and creators experiencing similar challenges. However, what is even more crucial is that the families ensure eldest daughters feel valued. Positive family dynamics can reduce both prenatal and postnatal stress, improving conditions for both eldest daughters and their mothers. Continue reading here for another example of how biological mechanisms play a role in relationships.

The bond between siblings is incredibly unique. The role of the eldest daughter is often greatly undervalued, deserving much more recognition. So, next time you’re with your elder sister, cousin, or even your eldest brother, take a moment to express gratitude for all they do to inspire you.

Written By

Hi there! I'm Suhani Singh, a high school student from Redmond, WA. I'm most interested in writing about news and lifestyle. Outside of writing and journalism, I enjoy learning neurobiology and advocating against the commercial tobacco industry.

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