Getting straight As, making honor rolls, being good at sports, keeping your room spotless at all times, and even marrying into the right family—these are the many expectations parents have for their children. And there’s a name for it.
It’s called “golden child syndrome.”
While it might seem like something wonderful (it does have the word “golden” in it, after all), it can actually cause damage to a child’s emotional health.
Why? Perfectionism is the elusive unicorn that parents (of any generation) just can’t seem to stop chasing.
Sure, it can help push your child to do their best. However, it can also send them spiraling down a dark hole of anxiety and self-doubt.
What Is the Golden Child Syndrome?
The golden child syndrome is simply this: the parents’ unrealistic expectations for their child to be perfect. And it’s often with one child rather than all.
This expectation for perfection stems from an authoritarian type of parenting. And it comes from a place of love, of course, but the pressure the parents put on their child can get to the point where it starts hurting them.
“We’ve been indoctrinated to have the belief system that our children are very special children who are prodigies, are going to be the most excellent examples of humanity, right?” says Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a clinical psychologist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest.
“So we push our children toward that, and we want to ensure their success. We want them to be better than all our siblings’ children and all the neighborhood’s children, and we want to extol their virtues on Facebook, and that’s how we get a sense of significance—if our children are excellent in something.”
Here’s how it may look: picture you’re at a family gathering, and your cousin’s kid is getting all the attention for being the starting quarterback on his football team. Not only that, but the kid is also on the honor roll, got voted prom king, and got accepted to all his college choices. Meanwhile, your kid is left alone like a wallflower.
That, in a nutshell, is the golden child syndrome, where the “golden” part of the term comes from the idea that the child is seen as “golden” or special by their parents. It’s like playing favorites but in a not-so-nice-way.
Is it real?
This phenomenon isn’t an official medical term, which begs the question: Is golden child syndrome real?
Given its definition, it’s just a fluffed-up name for perfectionism. And that, for sure, is real.
According to the American Psychological Association, “perfectionism” is “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.”
Kristina Mänd-Lakhiani, co-founder of Mindvalley and author of Becoming Flawesome: The Key to Living an Imperfectly Authentic Life, adds that our society’s obsession with perfectionism is what leads us to the dark side.
So what causes golden child syndrome? Unsurprisingly, it’s not a concept lost on generations. In fact, it’s a generational cycle, according to Dr. Shefali.
In her book, The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting, she discusses the concept and how it can impact a child’s sense of self as well as their relationships with others. Here’s how she explains it:
“We were raised by parents who were simply unable to be there for us as we needed them to, out of their own inner chaos, hurts, and wounds, which led us to develop a persona of compliance or rebellion, where we believed we needed to be perfect or to act out in order to gain our parents’ attention.”
What’s more, there’s research showing the results of immense pressure to live up to the parent’s expectations; the child may start to have:
- Depression, and
- Other emotional issues.
So when you’re able to understand and recognize the signs, you can take the steps to break the cycle.
What Are the Main Signs of Golden Child Syndrome?
So how would you know if your child is the “golden child” of the family? Or maybe, how can you know if you are?
Here are a few golden child syndrome signs to watch out for:
- Excessive praise. A little praise is good; it can boost morale. But if you catch yourself going over the top with it, watch out—this is a sign of golden child syndrome. For example, your child gets a participation trophy for every activity they’re a part of, even if they don’t try their best (or worse, they don’t participate at all).
- Entitlement. Your child feels like they deserve special treatment or attention, like demanding they get the newest iPhone. With this superiority complex, your child might often be disrespectful to others.
- Lack of empathy. When your kid is too focused on being the best, they might have a hard time relating to others. It’s much like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, who makes everything about him.
Many golden children often feel that if perfection isn’t achieved, then the result of that would be failure. But when you’re able to identify these signs in them and address them, you’re much better equipped to raise confident kids.
How Can This Syndrome Affect Children’s Lives?
There’s always that one kid in school—let’s call him Larry—who seems to do everything right. He’s got the lead in the school play, is the captain of the football team, and is the valedictorian of his graduating class.
“Larry’s so smart.”
“Larry’s so talented.”
“Did you see Larry score a kajillion touchdowns to win the championship game?”
Sure, Larry’s a superstar now. But what happens to him when he grows up and enters the world? How does the golden child syndrome affect him emotionally and socially? What are the long-term consequences if this is part of your parenting skills?
Here’s how Larry (and your child, possibly) can turn out:
One of the major golden child syndrome symptoms is that they feel like there’s no room for error. When your child is put on a pedestal, the expectation they put on themselves is that they have to be perfect all the time.
And if they make a mistake or fail, what happens then? Self-criticism… Which can lead to anxiety… Which can then lead to depression.
In one study, the researchers looked into the origins of a narcissistic personality, specifically in children. They found that the kids who were overpraised were more than likely to have a fixed mindset, which means that they believe their abilities are innate and not changeable.
And this makes it so much more difficult for them to learn from their mistakes.
2. Difficulty coping with criticism
Most golden children may be able to dish it, but they are really bad at taking it. Criticism and feedback? It’ll likely turn defensive or hostile.
“We regard getting hurt as ‘bad,’ because it forces us to adjust and cope,” explains Dr. Shefali in her Mindvalley Quest. “We feel as if we are simply unable to elevate ourselves in the manner asked of us and are terrified we will fall apart.”
Take a look at Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Even after 12 seasons, it’s still hard for him to grasp the concept of empathy and compassion. For him, it’s the concept of “Sheldon above all else” (but thank goodness for Amy to straighten him up, right?).
Even a research study on what happens when parents overpraise found that children who were praised too much and criticized too little were more likely to develop narcissistic tendencies. This will make it difficult for them to form any kind of healthy relationship, let alone do any kind of team activity.
3. Difficulty coping with failure
Much like criticism, failure is a major “hell naw.” And because there are narcissistic tendencies, the golden child would have an incredibly hard time learning from their mistakes.
According to Dr. Jordan Peterson, a well-known psychologist, in an interview on Valuetainment, there are a number of young adolescents who are overprotected, overscheduled, and under-challenged (in some sense). And it’s these children who tend not to be very resilient.
As mentioned, children who are often told how wonderful they are have a fixed mindset. And one study found that this fixed mindset can make it harder for them to…
- Take on challenges,
- Learn from their mistakes, and
- Be resilient.
But unlike Sheldon, who’s open to change (even if it did take him 12 seasons to get there), those with golden child syndrome are much like birds in a cage. Even though it’s in their nature to fly, they’re too afraid to leave their comfort zone.
4. Difficulty with independence
The golden child is so afraid of failure that they rely on others to make decisions for them. Because of that, they may struggle with being independent.
Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for them to come into their own. There is even research that supports this. A 2007 study found that being an overprotective parent is like putting the child in a bubble—it limits their exposure to new experiences and opportunities to make decisions on their own.
Not only that, but this dependency can ultimately be projected onto their children, their children’s children, and so on down the generational line, according to Dr. Shefali.
“This symbiosis of selves ultimately leaves little room for each to grow and thrive,” she explains. “It then gets projected onto our children, enslaving them to our parental fold beyond what’s healthy.”
5. Struggle with identity
The brain, the athlete, the basketcase, the princess, the rebel… These are just a few of the many labels that children get stuck with as they go through high school, even if they don’t really feel like they fit.
It’s like the case in the movie The Breakfast Club, where the students write a letter to Mr. Vernon. “You see us as you want to see us,” they wrote in their letter.
The same goes for the label “golden child.” Everyone expects them to be perfect (and that includes themselves), but what if they don’t want to be? What if they want the freedom to mess up once in a while?
How you parent your child has a direct influence on their identity, as research like this 2008 study has shown. And with all the pressure to live up to such impossible standards, it can make them feel like they don’t know who they truly are.
How Can You Overcome the Syndrome? 3 Practical Tips From Dr. Shefali Tsabary
As a parent, you are the result of your parents’ childhood upbringing. They are the result of their parents’ upbringing. And on and on it goes.
If you, yourself, are a golden child, it’s likely you’ll raise yours as one too.
But according to Dr. Shefali, parenting is less about your child and more about your inner child—this is the basis of her conscious parenting approach. It’s how you’ve come to terms with your unconscious patterns and how you want to show up in your relationship with your child.
So how can you overcome the syndrome? Here are three great tips from Dr. Shefali to get you started:
1. Mind your behavior
Parents who nudge (or push, for lack of a better word) their kids toward success often see themselves as “devoted.” But when their children begin to act out, they’re very much like, “What the…?”
Then come control and punishment. All because the ego was bruised—and by their own kid, no less.
Dr. Shefali recommends self-observation and asking yourself these questions:
- Is this coming from a place of care and well-intentioned love?
- Or is it coming from my ego and/or a cultural ego that’s been imposed on me?
For herself, Dr. Shefali explains that it almost always comes from her ego and not her daughter’s “bad behavior.”
Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s tip: “What is the need [of your child]? Because when you focus on the need, you go from your ego (which is in the head) to your heart, and your heart opens and you connect.”
2. Treat all children uniquely
The unconscious parent projects their own ideas and beliefs onto their offspring. Forget what the child wants. “This is what you should do” and “This is how you should be” are the universal ways parents shape and mold their children into the way they want them to be.
There are seven billion souls on this earth, and each one is unique, including your child. Just like you wouldn’t compare a banana to an apple, you shouldn’t compare one child to another.
And while you may connect better with one child over another, treating them with unbiasedness helps them grow at their own pace without the pressure of the golden child syndrome.
Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s tip: “What conscious parenting seeks is to go beyond the superficial to the deeper essence of the child and ask the parent to not see the child as an extension of the self, as an extension of the ego. To challenge oneself, to see the child as a unique free sovereign being.”
3. Set aside your judgment
There’s this quote by poet Maya Angelou that goes like this: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And “people” includes your child.
Because here’s the thing: kids who are judged and criticized, especially when they’re not meeting the caliber that’s expected of them, often have golden child syndrome in adulthood. But, as research shows, when parents set aside their judgment and accept their children for who they are, their kids tend to have higher self-esteem and better mental health.
Dr. Shefali Tsabary’s tip: “We slap [our projections] onto our children so that they aren’t even existing as unique beings anymore. It’s just a projection of our own background, our own legacies, our own emotional baggage, and that’s doing a great disservice to our children.”
From Golden Child to Golden Heart
Perfectly imperfect—that’s how we all are. And that’s how each of us parents should approach the way we see and treat our children.
“This parenting process is a spiritually awakening process for the parent,” says Dr. Shefali. “Don’t lose out on how you can grow and how you can elevate. Let your child be the mirror that they are.”
If you’re interested in connecting better with your child, head over to Mindvalley and join Dr. Shefali in her Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest. It’s a great way to deepen your understanding of not only how to be a good parent but also how to make peace with your inner child.
Here’s what one student had to say about it:
This quest came at a beautiful time for me, a time where I was truly ready to look at myself, my own family experience, my past, and all my fears, guilt, shame, and grief with acceptance and compassion. The open conversations I was able to have with other people in the tribe during this quest were really invaluable.— Dr. Vegard Engen, manager, teacher, researcher, and holistic therapist
When you sign up for a free Mindvalley account, you’ll have instant access to the first few lessons of the Quest, giving you a taste of Dr. Shefali’s insights and guidance.
Remember, it’s not about being the perfect parent or raising a child who is. It’s about being conscious of your own behaviors so that you can help your child be conscious of theirs.
Images generated on Midjourney except for the one of the Mindvalley trainer.