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What Is Golden Child Syndrome? 10 Signs and How to Heal

Is your family caught up in this toxic pattern? Therapists share their insights.

If your parents have ever played favorites among your siblings, you know just how hurtful that can feel—especially when you're the less favored child. However, fewer people consider just how harmful that favoritism can be for the child who's put on a pedestal over the others. When taken to extremes, this toxic parental favoritism is known as Golden Child Syndrome, and therapists say it can deeply affect the child, their siblings, and the parent-child relationship. While high praise and affection are typically positive coming from a caregiver, there are ways these habits can take an unhealthy turn.

"This dynamic can have several unintended consequences," explains Becca Reed, LCSW, PMH-C, a perinatal mental health and trauma therapist. "The Golden Child often internalizes the belief that love and acceptance are conditional on their ability to live up to expectations. This can result in notable anxiety marked by perfectionism, intense pressure to overachieve, and an exaggerated need for validation. In adulthood, these patterns can impact their mental health, relationships, and self-identity."

Rachel Goldberg, MS, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist based in Studio City, California, notes that Golden Child Syndrome is not a diagnosis recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), "the gold standard mental health professions use to diagnose mental health issues." However, many people seem to relate to the idea of toxic favoritism and say they've experienced it in their own families.

Therapists are only now exploring the concept, along with ways to help people heal from growing up as the Golden Child. These are the top 10 signs you need to know and what to do if you recognize the dynamic in your own family relationships.

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Parents often praise and openly favor the Golden Child.

Unhappy little girl feeling jealous while parents spend time with her brother at home

Golden Child Syndrome typically refers to a family dynamic where one child is favored and receives preferential treatment over other family members, Goldberg says. This is usually easiest to spot when the Golden Child has siblings who do not receive the same treatment.

"They receive a noticeable amount of positive attention in comparison to their siblings," she tells Best Life. "The Golden Child will receive many compliments, and their achievements—even small ones—will be cheered and brought to everyone's attention."

The Golden Child may have a warped sense of responsibility and consequences.

teenage boy on his phone

Oftentimes, the Golden Child is placed on a pedestal and viewed as the "perfect" child.

"This often comes with a host of expectations and responsibilities, as this child is seen as the family's pride. The child is taught to meet high standards and represent the family's ideals. This can lead to an identity that is strongly tied to pleasing the parents and achieving their vision of success," explains Reed.

However, the knife can cut both ways: Sometimes, the Golden Child will be given less responsibility and fewer consequences than their siblings, thanks to their preferential status. "The Golden Child gets away with having to do less, and for the rules they break, their consequences are less acknowledged," Goldberg notes.

Siblings are often compared negatively.

Parents scolding teenager daughter in home kitchen

Sometimes, the comparison between siblings is overt, and the parents may even use it to intentionally shame the less favored siblings.

"The Golden Child is frequently brought up when discussing disappointments with other siblings. An example of this would be, 'Why can't you study as much as your brother does?'" Goldberg says.

Over the years, this can erode the sibling relationship, replacing affection and camaraderie with bitterness and jealousy.

"As they grow older, they may argue more with their siblings because their siblings will no longer accept their role as the lesser child and begin to push back. This can create a dynamic where the Golden Child can't face facts and continually picks fights, feeling they are always in the right," the therapist says.

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The parents project their own hopes and dreams onto the child.

young parents playing with daughter
Pond's Saksit / Shutterstock

Much of the time, parents cling to a Golden Child because, through them, they see a way to fulfill their own unfulfilled hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Goldberg explains that the parents may "hype them up regarding an activity they are passionate about."

"An example of this would be, 'Let's go practice shooting hoops again. I know you can make Varsity, and I can't wait to sit front and center watching you work your way up to MVP of the team,'" she shares.

The more successful the child is, the more the parent may latch on to that shared sense of achievement.

"The Golden Child brings glory to the family, and this might be done through the child being a decorated athlete, physically attractive, or a high-achiever in school. The child's success is viewed as an extension of their family," says Brianna Paruolo, LCMHC, a psychotherapist in private practice with On Par Therapy NYC.

It may come as no surprise to learn that Golden Child Syndrome is often associated with narcissistic parents.

They may feel a sense of entitlement in other areas of their life.

rude teenage girl sticking her hand out in mom's face
gpointstudio / Shutterstock

What's so wrong with pushing your child to be a high achiever and showering them with praise, you might be wondering? Well, for one, they may feel resentful when people outside of their family don't react the same way.

"The Golden Child might struggle to understand why they are not praised as often in settings such as school, in friend groups, or at work," says Goldberg. "They might seek out compliments and feel confused as to why few outside of home acknowledge how amazing they are. For example, the Golden Child might receive their test back with an A and then promptly share it with everyone around them to seek acknowledgment."

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The Golden Child may strive for perfectionism.

Close up of a female soccer team huddling for a motivational speech

Perfectionism is another hallmark of Golden Child Syndrome. "They strive for perfection, fearing mistakes might disappoint their parents," says Reed. "Their self-worth heavily relies on parental praise and validation."

This can spill out into other relationships as they grow up. Only by overachieving—and making no mistakes—do they feel they will be accepted and loved by the people in their lives.

The Golden Child may try to hide perceived failures.

Grade of B- is written with red pen on the test.

Because the Golden Child feels the need to be perfect, they may also try to hide their perceived failures, says Goldberg.

"The Golden child, wanting to maintain their status, might feel they have to hide things that they feel will disappoint their parents and may feel guilty about it. For example, a child may hide their test score because they didn't get an A or may be hard on themselves and feel they should have studied harder," she says.

Ultimately, this can get in the way of having an open and honest relationship, in which the child feels they can show up within the family as their full self.

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The Golden Child may develop fragile self-esteem.

Lonely-looking young woman looking out window

You might think that being given priority status would help a child develop unshakable self-esteem, but therapists agree that it can have the opposite effect. Because the Golden Child often relies heavily on external validation, their egos may also be more deeply bruised when they're criticized.

"If someone says something rude to them or they feel excluded from a group, they may feel negatively toward themselves and feel they are somehow a disappointment or have done something wrong. However, when they are feeling included or perceived well, they suddenly feel on top of the world," explains Goldberg.

They may even go to great lengths to secure that feeling of external validation. "An example would be a grandparent coming over and complimenting something their sibling does. The Golden Child then steps up and suggests they look at something of theirs to try to one-up their sibling and maintain their status quo of superiority in that family," she adds.

They may have an underdeveloped sense of self.

A young woman lies in bed while holding her phone with a depressed look on her face.

When you spend most of your life people-pleasing, it can be hard to get to know yourself. To that end, the Golden Child "may have little self-awareness around who they are, what they like or dislike, and who they desire to be," says Reed.

These people-pleasing tendencies can also translate into having a lack of boundaries in other relationships.

They may suffer from guilt, anxiety, or excessive stress.

Depressed teen student helplessly stares at his reflection in bathroom mirror.

Over time, all of this can take a toll on the Golden Child's mental health, says Paruolo.

"There might be increased stress, anxiety, and depression due to the pressures of the conditional circumstances that maintain their Golden Child status," the therapist says. "This is a complicated role the Golden Child is placed into, which comes with many overwhelming expectations and conditions."

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Here's how to start healing from Golden Child Syndrome.

Mature man giving support to a young man during a psychotherapy session

There are several steps you can take to start healing if you feel you grew up as the Golden Child in your family.

Reed says that therapy is a good place to begin. "A therapist can help unravel deep-seated beliefs and establish healthier self-perception," she notes.

You'll also want to prioritize self-exploration as you chart your course forward. "Reflect on personal values and passions to rediscover your authentic self," Reed says. This is especially important if your sense of identity has become entangled with pleasing others, making it hard to know what you truly want.

As part of this, you'll also need to establish healthy boundaries in your relationships. Reed recommends working on learning to say "no" without guilt and surrounding yourself with a supportive network of people who value you for who you are, not what you achieve.

It's also important to extend that same compassion to yourself. Practice being gentle with yourself and embracing imperfections and mistakes as part of being human. Give yourself the unconditional love you may have lacked in your earlier years.

And finally, don't assume that you've necessarily been damaged by your experience, says Paul Losoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Bedrock Psychology Group: "A Golden Child can grow up to be a successful and thoughtful person. They have learned to meet their parents' high expectations and, as adults, go on to thrive and to become extraordinary individuals."

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more