What Is Oldest Daughter Syndrome?
Although “oldest daughter syndrome” isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, it certainly is a widely experienced phenomenon. Read on to learn more about the unique challenges oldest daughters face.
By: Ashley Laderer
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
September 27, 2023
Table of Contents
The oldest daughter in a family often faces a unique set of experiences. In the role of eldest daughter, a girl may have distinct challenges, responsibilities, and expectations. Due to this pressure, they may develop certain personality traits or even mental health challenges. This phenomenon is known as “oldest daughter syndrome” or “eldest daughter syndrome.”
Although this isn’t a formal mental health diagnosis, it’s a term that many eldest daughters relate to, helping them feel seen and validated in their life circumstances. In fact, #eldestdaughtersyndrome has a whopping 24.7 million views on TikTok, with #oldestdaughtersyndrome following right behind at 24.2 million views. People are raising awareness about the “syndrome” and helping fellow oldest daughters realize they are not alone in their struggles.
Whether you are the eldest daughter in your family or a family member trying to understand the unique circumstances of the oldest daughter in your life, here’s what you need to know about oldest daughter syndrome.
What is oldest daughter syndrome?
“Oldest daughter syndrome is a term used to describe the unique challenges and expectations that are often placed upon the eldest child in a family,” says licensed clinical professional counselor Jamila Jones. “As the firstborn daughter, these children are often expected to set an example for their younger siblings, taking on more responsibilities and acting as role models.”
The term is loosely linked to birth order theory, introduced in the early 1900s by an Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred Adler. Birth order theory proposes that the order in which a child is born into a family plays a major role in shaping their personality traits, behaviors, and life experiences. In turn, this leads to a firstborn child being different from a middle child or youngest child. One of the main aspects of the theory included oldest children having more responsibilities and “neuroses” compared to their other siblings.
Although it seems like it could be good for the eldest daughter to act as a role model for younger siblings, it can also result in some negative consequences. “While being the oldest daughter can lead to a strong sense of leadership and independence, it can also create a sense of pressure and a feeling of having to constantly strive for perfection,” Jones says.
Due to the responsibilities and pressure, oldest siblings may feel pushed to “grow up” prematurely. They might feel very mature for their age compared to peers who are a middle child or youngest child. This is because the older siblings might be forced to take care of their siblings from a younger age.
“In some families, the oldest child is more of a caretaker or parent to their siblings, instead of an actual sibling,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Kasey Scharnett King. “They miss out on the childhood experience; their life practically skips a generation.” While the youngest siblings and middle siblings get to experience a more “traditional” childhood, the firstborn daughter carries the burden of acting like a mother to their brothers or sisters.
On top of this, King says the oldest children might also get caught up in adult business. “If this household is dual-parent, the oldest child may be the third adult in this house, more aware of their parents’ personal matters and may even be used as a mediator for their disagreements,” King explains. This puts the child in a sticky situation.
Regardless of being a caregiver, getting caught up in the drama between parents, or both, the oldest daughters may end up putting themselves last. King explains that oftentimes an eldest daughter might feel like there’s no “safe space” for them. They might feel like they need to stay strong and appear unbothered to maintain order in the household and safeguard younger siblings. “Oldest siblings may also take mental, emotional, and sometimes physical abuse from their parents in order to protect their siblings,” King says.
It’s important to note that not every eldest daughter will have these experiences and develop this “syndrome.” Everyone’s upbringing and family life are different, and the lasting impacts of this vary.
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Signs of oldest daughter syndrome
Whether a firstborn daughter is in the throes of their caregiving duties or if they’re adults now, they may exhibit many signs related to being the oldest sibling. Jones and King say some common traits and signs of oldest daughter syndrome include:
- Having a strong sense of responsibility
- Feeling a need for control
- Carrying the heavy weight of parents’ expectations
- Struggling with same-age relationships
- Feeling resentment towards family (parents or siblings)
- Always putting others before themselves
- People pleasing behaviors
Hope to cope with oldest daughter syndrome
Make yourself a priority
Get support from others in your life
Learn to set boundaries as necessary
Know when to seek professional help
No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to make healthy changes in your life to cope with the mental health effects of being the eldest daughter. Here are five ways to improve your well-being.
1. Learn to prioritize yourself
When you grow up taking care of other people before taking care of yourself, it can be difficult to think about putting yourself before others. However, it’s important to remember the saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to care for yourself before caring for others.
“Make yourself a priority,” King says. “As a ‘parental’ figure, you have become a natural nurturer and caregiver, and you were never taught how to take care of yourself. Spending time alone is a great way to focus solely on you.”
2. Practice self-care
One way to prioritize yourself is to revamp your self-care routine, or perhaps put one in place for the first time. Jones says making time for yourself and your own needs can help reduce and prevent burnout and stress.
Some examples of self-care include:
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy balanced diet
- Getting enough high-quality sleep
- Doing something creative like making art or music
- Practicing mindfulness or meditation
3. Lean on your support system
Although you might be used to having people rely on you, it’s important to recognize that you deserve – and need – help, too. “It’s also important to have a support system of friends or family whom you can confide in and lean on when needed,” Jones says.
Identify who in your life you can trust and rely on to help you when you’re in need. Social support is key for mental health, especially when you have the right people on your side.
4. Learn to set boundaries
As an oldest daughter, you might have become a people pleaser, always saying “yes,” or perhaps having no choice but to say “yes” when someone needs your help. However, along with learning to prioritize yourself, setting firm, healthy boundaries is key.
“Remember, it is okay to say no,” King says. “Saying ‘no’ to someone else is saying ‘yes’ to you.” Boundaries look different for everyone, and you should set yours based on your preferences.
King suggests the following ideas for boundary setting:
- Not allowing yourself to be always available to others
- Not answering your phone after a certain time in the evening
- Limiting the amount of time you’re on the phone with people who drain you
- Remembering you don’t always have to have every answer or give advice
- Preserving your energy and encouraging people to find sources of support beyond yourself
- Inform your parents/siblings/loved ones of what those boundaries are and the consequences of violating them
5. Know when to seek help
Oldest daughter syndrome is associated with feelings of anxiety and depression, Jones says. If you feel like mental health symptoms are getting in the way of your quality and enjoyment of life or your day-to-day functioning at work or school, this is a sign that you could likely benefit from the help of a mental health professional. Therapy can help teach you how to practice healthy self-talk, learn coping skills, interpersonal skills, boundary setting, and much more.
How Charlie Health can help
If you struggle with the mental health effects of oldest daughter syndrome, Charlie Health is here to help.
Charlie Health is the largest virtual mental health provider for teens and young adults with serious mental health conditions. Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides personalized care for people dealing with a wide range of concerns. Every client at Charlie Health is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs and a group of peers from similar backgrounds with similar struggles.
Whether you’re exploring treatment options for the first time or seeking extra support on top of the therapy, Charlie Health provides individualized and evidence-based mental health care in a safe, supportive space.