‘Eldest Daughter Syndrome’ May Be the Reason Why You’re Such a People-Pleasing Adult

Photo: Getty Images / FG Trade Latin
Being the oldest sibling comes with a lot of memorable firsts for you and your parents: the very first baby steps, the first name in the baby book, the first child to graduate high school. Unfortunately, you may have also been the first one up in the morning because you had to get your younger siblings ready for school, or the first one who learned to cook because making dinner became your responsibility. Perhaps you felt more like a surrogate parent to your siblings rather than a child yourself. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone and there’s a name for it—“eldest daughter syndrome.”

Experts In This Article

Eldest daughter syndrome, or older daughter syndrome, is not a new concept per se. But it’s earned new life on social media because of viral TikTok videos on the subject. In this video from therapist Kati Morton, LMFT, she describes eldest daughter syndrome as “the unique pressures and responsibilities placed onto the oldest daughter in the family.” In another video, therapist Israa Nasir says how you were treated as the oldest girl in the family can show up in how you were raised and how you parent your kids.

"[Eldest daughters are] used to functioning at such a high level that they’re not aware of their needs. Their self-worth becomes tied to the successful management of their responsibilities and keeping others happy.” —Benu Lahiry, LMFT

For folks on TikTok at least, the idea of an eldest daughter syndrome rings very true to their experiences. “Now sure if I feel attacked or seen,” wrote one person on Morton's video. “I never remember being a kid. Always felt responsible for both parents and younger brothers…I’m exhausted,” wrote another.

But as with any mental health or psychology trend on the Internet, it’s always worth asking how legit this concept is. Ahead, read what therapists and mental health experts have to say about eldest daughter syndrome and how it can impact your life and relationships.

What is oldest daughter syndrome?

Eldest daughter syndrome describes the “shared experience of first-born daughters,” says therapist Benu Lahiry, LMFT, chief clinical officer at Ours. “It can manifest as a pervasive sense of duty, difficulty establishing boundaries, and challenges in forming healthy relationships.”

Similar to middle child syndrome, eldest daughter syndrome isn’t an official mental health diagnosis. Instead, it’s a subtype of birth order theory, the idea that one's place in a family (oldest, middle, youngest, and only child) can impact a person's personality and development. This theory was coined by a psychologist named Alfred Adler in the ‘20s.

In Adler’s theory about birth order, the oldest child typically deals with very high expectations from their parents and is given lots of responsibility. They’re also “dethroned” from their parents' attention by younger siblings; according to his theory,1 older children subconsciously try to recapture their parents' focus by doing everything expected of them.

Eldest daughter syndrome describes a uniquely gendered version of what can happen to the oldest sibling in a family. It can develop when “mothers are overwhelmed and unable to manage responsibilities on their own,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University. Mothers may outsource tasks to their daughters, or daughters may pick up on their mother’s stress and feel obligated to help with domestic or caretaking duties. By contrast, sons are usually encouraged to be independent and pursue hobbies, relationships, or careers of their choice, she adds.

Female-identifying children are more commonly affected because “girls are thought to mature faster than boys,” says Patrice Le Goy, PhD, LMFT, international psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, meaning that adults consider them ready for more difficult tasks and responsibilities sooner (and might also hold them to a higher standard) than male counterparts.

There is some newer evidence that eldest daughters literally grow up faster than other children. A 2024 study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology followed mother-daughter pairs for 15 years and found girls whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy (particularly first-born daughters) tended to go through go through adrenarche—a pre-puberty phase of development that impacts a person’s emotions along with their height and skin3—sooner. The study authors hypothesized that a mom’s prenatal stress levels kickstarts an “adaptive” early emotional maturity of their daughters so they're better, more effective helpers.

It’s important to note that birth order theory is still a theory, with mixed evidence4 to its impact on personality5. And what number child you are in a family is not the only factor that influences your development. Environmental factors like neglect, or the lack of an authority figure, may prompt a child (regardless of birth order) to assume responsibilities well beyond their years. Other studies confirm that maternal stress during pregnancy can affect an infant’s brain development6 so younger siblings can experience changes as well, Dr. Romanoff says. (And those negative effects can be mitigated with early interventions.)

What are the symptoms of oldest child syndrome?

Eldest daughters may feel a strong sense of responsibility for their siblings, Dr. Le Goy says. This includes providing social, emotional, and financial support. Your siblings may see you as nurturing and dependable, but seldom reciprocate when you need support, she adds.

The mental toll of being a caretaker can continue in adolescence. It may have felt like you weren’t your parents' favorite child because your siblings received more of their attention. Perhaps your parents justified this dynamic by saying, “I never have to worry about you like I do with your siblings” or “you always do the right thing.” As an adult, you might feel resentful for having to pick up the slack at home.

Other symptoms of eldest daughter syndrome are people pleasing and difficulty setting boundaries. For example, you might feel guilty saying no when a relative asks to borrow money, even if you don’t have money to spare or don’t think it’s a good idea to offer a loan. Or you might feel frustrated when your partner assumes you’ll drop everything to comfort them after a bad day at work or a fight with their mom—and yet you will still do it anyway.

Why does eldest daughter syndrome happen?

Eldest daughter syndrome stems from a combination of parental expectations, family dynamics, gender roles, and cultural influences, says chief wellness consultant and fortune 500 executive coach Daryl Appleton, EdD. Girls are typically socialized to be caretakers, first with siblings and later with elderly parents. Their families expect them to fulfill adult responsibilities (say, paying bills or preparing meals for others) along with age-appropriate tasks like doing homework or cleaning their room.

In some families, eldest daughters are treated as a reflection of their mother. This can happen when “mothers unconsciously project their struggles with prioritizing themselves onto their daughters,” Dr. Romanoff explains. In turn, eldest daughters may learn to suppress their needs or sacrifice their happiness.

Firstborn daughters are more likely to experience parentification compared to older brothers and non-firstborn daughters. Parentification occurs when a parent assigns adult responsibilities to a child before they’re ready and without the power and autonomy bestowed on adults, Dr. Le Goy says. This may be the result of cultural norms such as when eldest daughters are expected to feed their younger siblings, help them with homework, or manage the household. Other times, parentification happens out of necessity, such as when parents work and lack access to affordable or consistent childcare. It can also happen to children of immigrants7, who might be relied on to bridge cultural and language gaps for their parents.

Are there any benefits of eldest daughter syndrome?

Parentification can lead to challenges, but not all eldest daughters experience these family dynamics as traumatic, Lahiry says. “Parentification isn’t necessarily negative unless it prevents the child from living their own life and having their own friends and activities,” Dr. Le Goy agrees.

There may even be an upside to this syndrome, including qualities like self-reliance, confidence, and independence. Eldest daughters tend to have strong communication skills from having to solve problems or mediate conflict between siblings, Dr. Appleton says. Other people may describe them as trustworthy, dependable, and self-sufficient.

Eldest daughters tend to be “high achieving, organized, and good at managing stress,” Dr. Romanoff adds. “They’re also known for being extremely likable interpersonally.” However, this can come at the expense of being authentic, since they’re constantly trying to live up to others’ expectations.

What is the mental health impact of eldest daughter syndrome?

Dr. Appleton says the long-term mental health of eldest daughter syndrome include “difficulty meeting their needs, and a lack of boundaries." Eldest daughters may also struggle to develop an identity outside of being a caretaker, which is known as enmeshment. “This can lead to chronic stress and feelings of resentment or inadequacy,” she adds.

Beneath the pressure of adult responsibilities, eldest daughters can feel isolated and unable to relate to their peers. “They’re used to functioning at such a high level that they’re not aware of their needs,” Lahiry says. “Their self-worth becomes tied to the successful management of their responsibilities and keeping others happy.”

As mentioned earlier, older daughters are often used to taking charge and are comfortable leading others. This may also make it difficult for them to be vulnerable or ask for help.

Being parentified can contribute to anxiety and depression. Eldest daughters may not feel worthy of having their needs met because their parents were always preoccupied with work or other responsibilities, Dr. Romanoff says. They often carry this sense of “neglect into adulthood by finding comfort in relationships with others who are more self-centered and self-focused,” she says.

Often, eldest daughters might feel guilt for not being or doing “enough,” so they compensate by being an overachiever and a perfectionist. At work, they might seem controlling because of their high standards. In their personal life, eldest daughters may have trouble advocating for themselves and getting out of unhealthy relationships, Lahiry says.

How to cope with being the eldest daughter

Just because you were born into a particular family dynamic doesn’t mean that you have to deal with the consequences forever. If you’re struggling with eldest daughter syndrome, experts recommend a few places to start:

1. Reimagine your relationship with your family

If your caregivers treated you as independent and your siblings as helpless, you have an opportunity to change this dynamic as an adult. Start by “letting your siblings make mistakes and recognizing that this is how people grow,” Dr. Le Goy says. This might feel uncomfortable in the moment, but it’s important for your growth (and theirs).

You can also acknowledge times when you felt overwhelmed and neglected while honoring the sacrifices your parents made to give you a better life. It can be hard to hold two truths like this, but it’s an important way to start reshaping your role in your family.

2. Practice setting boundaries

Another aspect of healing is learning to set boundaries and unlearning perfectionism, Lahiry says. Perhaps you need to reassess how you and your loved ones are sharing responsibilities like childcare or finances. You can also work on “asserting your autonomy and challenging unhealthy familial expectations,” Dr. Appleton says. For example, if your mom always expects you to be available to talk on the phone no matter the time, tell her that you want to start setting up pre-scheduled calls at times that work for you both. (These phrases for setting boundaries can help you practice, too.)

3. Find support outside of your family

Even if you can’t change your family’s expectations, you can focus on managing your worries, Lahiry says. Consider mental health resources such as support groups or individual therapy. There you can learn techniques such as mindfulness and lifestyle changes to cope with anxiety.

4. Prioritize self care

This can be challenging for someone who is used to putting others first. But when you learn to prioritize your needs, you’re more likely to show up authentically in your relationships, Dr. Romanoff says. This could mean working on being vulnerable and sharing your struggles through journaling, or leaning on your support network. (Or even just giving yourself one uninterrupted hour for yourself every single day.) Getting comfortable with asking for help and teaching others how you want to be treated can help you build healthier and more fulfilling relationships, she adds.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Cundiff, Patrick R. “Ordered delinquency: the “effects” of birth order on delinquency.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 39,8 (2013): 1017-29. doi:10.1177/0146167213488215
  2. Fox, Molly M et al. “Mothers’ prenatal distress accelerates adrenal pubertal development in daughters.” Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 160 (2024): 106671. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2023.106671
  3. Byrne, Michelle L et al. “A systematic review of adrenarche as a sensitive period in neurobiological development and mental health.” Developmental cognitive neuroscience vol. 25 (2017): 12-28. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2016.12.004
  4. Okada, Naohiro et al. “Birth order and prosociality in the early adolescent brain.” Scientific reports vol. 11,1 21806. 8 Nov. 2021, doi:10.1038/s41598-021-01146-0
  5. Rohrer, Julia M et al. “Examining the effects of birth order on personality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 112,46 (2015): 14224-9. doi:10.1073/pnas.1506451112
  6. Nolvi, Saara et al. “Prenatal Stress and the Developing Brain: Postnatal Environments Promoting Resilience.” Biological psychiatry vol. 93,10 (2023): 942-952. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2022.11.023
  7. Titzmann, Peter F. “Growing up too soon? Parentification among immigrant and native adolescents in Germany.” Journal of youth and adolescence vol. 41,7 (2012): 880-93. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9711-1

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