A “golden child” is one who is considered “special” by their family and chosen as a proxy for a parent’s own achievements and magnificence. Unfortunately, the child must live up to perhaps unattainable levels of accomplishment and perfection. Being the golden child does not necessarily represent a positive familial position, and narcissistic parents frequently place this identity on one of their children.
What Is Golden Child Syndrome?
Although the term “golden child syndrome” persists, it is not a medical or psychological disorder, and therefore no clinical definition for this syndrome exists. However, within the narcissistic family structure, there is typically one child whom the narcissist family member (usually a parent) favors, as they see that child as the embodiment of all of the virtues that they believe themselves to hold.
Those with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) identify with their golden child and place the burden of living out their greatness on the child. These expectations may include the child excelling in ways that the narcissist falsely believes themselves to excel, whether this is in academics, athletics, or some other performative avenue of expression. The parent lives vicariously through the child, and the child is expected to bring prestige to the family.1 Unfortunately, the pressure that a parent puts on the child can have a negative effect from childhood through adulthood.
What Does Research Say about Golden Child Syndrome?
While there has been a great deal written about narcissism and the ways in which it manifests in different settings, there is less research available addressing Golden Child Syndrome. This role was first mentioned in Goldklank’s 1986 study exploring family influence on career choice. Not only was it noted that the golden child carries unique status within the family, but their parentification also contributes to the further destabilization of the family hierarchy. Because children are placed in these positions through no fault of their own, it can create inner tension as they may unconsciously recognize that their prized status exacerbates the imbalance within the parenting dyad.2 The term grew in popularity as it so clearly captured the expectations placed by narcissistic and dysfunctional parents on the favored child.
8 Signs of a Golden Child
The Golden Child is greatly valued by their narcissistic parent for a variety of reasons–these form a heavy load for the child to carry. Within the dysfunctional family, the golden child learns early on that their role is to please their parent and live out their parent’s own unfulfilled ambitions.
Below are eight signs of a golden child:
- A need to achieve: Golden children recognize that their place in the family is deeply entwined to their ability to meet the expectations that their parent places on them. The golden child may never even think to explore their own ambitions, as they are trained to focus on what their parent expects of them.
- People-pleasing behaviors: Because the golden child recognizes that their specialness is tied to their ability to be what their parent wants them to be, they grow up focusing on making others happy.
- Filling an adult role too early: Golden children are often parentified, meaning that they are required to step into a pseudo-adult role by their narcissistic parent. Because golden children are perceived as more perfect or special, they are given greater status than their siblings hold. This is not healthy for a child’s development.
- Fear of failure: Golden children are treated more favorably than their siblings, but if they fail to meet their parent’s standards, the punishment may be out of proportion to their misstep. This ingrains in them a pervasive fear of letting themselves or others down.
- Overwhelming guilt: Typically, if there is a golden child, there is also a child identified as the family scapegoat. Everything that goes well becomes associated with the golden child’s goodness, while everything that goes wrong is blamed on the scapegoat. The golden child recognizes the inequity of this, and feelings of guilt for the treatment of their siblings may be carried into adulthood.
- Conflicting loyalties: Driven by the need to please their parent, the golden child may be asked to take a role in disciplining their siblings. This generates inner conflict, as the golden child recognizes that they hold the same family status as their siblings.
- Self-criticism: The golden child may feel that they are never “good enough.” If they were habitually compared to the scapegoat, they may fear a fall from grace and being dropped into the role of family scapegoat.
- Episodes of “need-panic”: This occurs when the golden child’s own needs suddenly bubble up and they are unable to keep them from spilling over or exploding.3
Effects of Golden Child Syndrome
Growing up as a golden child can lead to lifelong challenges. While golden children tend to take pride in their role when young, the effects of golden child syndrome over time can be detrimental to the individual’s overall well-being in adulthood. In addition, the golden child’s future relationships may be marred by their prior golden child status.
Effects of golden child syndrome that compromise quality of life include:
The golden child’s position in the family hierarchy depends upon their ability to do what is expected of them and bring pride to their parent. In contrast, most children are appreciated and loved unconditionally simply for who they are, not what they do. Golden children may experience symptoms of anxiety or be diagnosed with some form of anxiety disorder, as they recognize that their behavior is currency needed to earn the love of their parents.
In dysfunctional families–whether this is due to the presence of a narcissistic parent or other reasons–children are not provided with a foundation of secure parent-child attachment. With parents who engage in unpredictable or abnormal parenting behaviors, such as making one child the golden child, children realize that unconditional love and attachment cannot be counted on. Without this secure foundation, children may grow into adults who avoid attachment as a means of self-protection or engage in anxious attachment, which reflects a desperate need for continuing proof that they are loved or needed.
Golden children may be vaunted by their parents, but they fear that their status may be taken away in an instant or that they never deserved the praise in the first place. This reflects the low self-esteem that may be a trait that is carried throughout adulthood.
In contrast to the presence of low self-esteem, golden children may take on the narcissistic traits that they saw in their parents. Parents are powerful role models for their children, and the golden child is likely to be the one to spend the greatest amount of time with them. Thus, being “like mom” or “like dad” may result in developing strong narcissistic tendencies that last throughout their lives.
A golden child’s sense of self and their personal boundaries are erased, as their own sense of identity is replaced with the need to live up to their role. Their behaviors and beliefs reflect what their parent expects of them, and they may feel incapable of individuation even in adulthood.
How Does Narcissism Impact a Golden Child?
Parents with NPD often shape one of their children into the golden child role. The golden child becomes an extension of that parent, and the child’s role is to please that parent. Narcissistic parents are unable to appreciate the golden child’s unique identity, and attempt to control their child’s interests and activities in ways that would reflect positively on them. They live vicariously through their golden child and they feed on their child’s successes, which serve as the parents’ narcissistic supply.
How to Overcome Golden Child Syndrome
While learning to overcome childhood experiences and challenges can seem daunting, there are healthy coping mechanisms you can adopt to help you deal with the negative effects of being a golden child.
Tips for overcoming golden child syndrome include:
- Set healthy boundaries: By setting boundaries and learning how to say no to others who want to infringe on you, you are creating a clear sense of self and showing others where your needs begin and their demands on you must end.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness refers to the ability to be fully present in the moment. It provides a sense of calm in that you focus only on what is happening in the moment, rather than being distracted by the need to meet others’ needs.
- Join a support group: Trying to overcome golden child syndrome is challenging, but participating in support groups, including online support groups, can be empowering. Finding out that you are not alone can help you feel more confident in breaking free of the golden child syndrome.
- Engage in self-exploration: Golden children live out their parents’ dreams and miss the experience of defining their own path or choosing their own careers. Explore your own dreams and create a vision for how you would like to be seen and what your own dream career would be.
- Let go of self-blame and shame: Recognize that you are human, as are your parents. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes, and a mistake does not mean that you are a “bad person” or a failure. Let yourself appreciate mistakes as learning opportunities, not opportunities for self-blame or shame.
While there is not a great deal of research exploring golden child syndrome, nor does it have an official diagnosis, professionals recognize the ways that family patterns, and often narcissistic parents, can shape a child in negative ways. If you recognize yourself or someone you love in the traits described above, it is important not to blame a child for their parent’s mistakes. Learning to create personal boundaries and recognizing that you are “good enough” are crucial ways to break free of the golden child syndrome.
For Further Reading
- How to Deal With Narcissistic Parents: 7 Ways to Stay Healthy: This article provides tips that can help adult children of narcissists enjoy a better life.
- 17 Signs of a Narcissistic Parent & How to Deal With Them: If you feel that you might have been raised as a “golden child,” this article will provide helpful information for understanding and dealing more effectively with your parents.
- 10 Signs of Being Raised by Narcissists & Effects in Adulthood: This article can help you better understand the effects of having been raised by a narcissistic parent.
- 21 Best Books on Narcissism & Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Provides curated collection of books that address narcissism through a variety of lenses.