Oldest sibling syndrome: Oldest child syndrome: Signs to watch out for and ways to overcome it
What is ‘eldest daughter syndrome’ and how can we fix it?
Have you heard of “eldest daughter syndrome”? It’s the emotional burden eldest daughters tend to take on (and are encouraged to take on) in many families from a young age.
From caring for younger siblings, helping out with everyday chores, looking after sick parents to sorting shopping orders or online deliveries, eldest daughters often shoulder a heavy but invisible burden of domestic responsibility from a young age.
What’s wrong with that? You might ask, shouldn’t the eldest children, who are supposed to be more grown-up, help out and look after their younger siblings? Aren’t girls “naturally” better at caring? These popular assumptions are so entrenched that they can make it difficult for us to see the problem.
But #EldestDaughterSyndrome is now trending on TikTok, with adolescent girls speaking out about the unfair amount of unpaid (and unappreciated) labour they do in their families, as well as discussing its adverse effects on their lives, health and wellbeing.
Of course, the “syndrome” has existed for centuries across many parts of the world. So why is it now being spoken about as such an issue?
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
You may be interested in:
Houseplants don’t just look nice – they can also give your mental health a boost
How the philosophy behind the Japanese art form of kintsugi can help us navigate failure
How to spend time wisely – what young people can learn from retirees
Despite women’s rise in education and employment, they still shoulder the lion’s share of housework. Indeed, progress towards gender equality in the workplace has not translated into gender equality at home. And eldest daughter syndrome can go some way to explain why this is the case.
‘ Just look after your brother will you.’
Research shows that children make a notable but often overlooked contribution to domestic labour. Mirroring the gender divide among adults, girls between five and 14 years old spend 40% more time on domestic work than boys.
Following a patriarchal pecking order, the eldest daughter often bears the brunt of the burden among her siblings.
As voiced by many on TikTok, the syndrome can impair eldest daughters’ wellbeing and “steal” their childhood as they are rushed into assuming a disproportionate amount of adult responsibilities – also known as parentification. In doing so, it reproduces gender inequality in domestic labour from one generation to another.
Why it happens
At least three behavioural theories underlie eldest daughter syndrome and they are often simultaneously at play, reinforcing one another.
First, the role modelling theory, which suggests that eldest daughters often follow their mother as a role model in learning to “do” gender. Second, the sex-typing theory proposes that parents often assign different, gendered tasks to girls and boys.
Sex-typing often builds on parents’ gendered understanding of domestic work as something associated with femininity. For parents who consciously strive to instil gender equality in their children, sex-typing can still occur as eldest daughters unconsciously join their mothers in gendered activities such as cooking, house cleaning and shopping.
And third, the labour substitution theory suggests that when working mothers have limited time available for domestic work, eldest daughters often act as “substitutes”. As a result, they end up spending more time on care provision and housework.
Consequently, mothers’ progress towards gender equality at work can come at the cost of their eldest daughters picking up the domestic slack at a young age.
Older siblings often end up helping with homework.
Pexels/august de richelieu
As we look further afield, the issue of eldest daughter syndrome has far-reaching implications for global gender inequality and an ongoing global care crisis.
In the Philippines, for example, many mothers migrate to the US, the Middle East and Europe to work as domestic workers.
Their work helps free their clients from domestic gender inequality to some extent through domestic outsourcing. But back in the Philippines, the women’s eldest daughters often have to step up as “surrogate” mothers and run the household.
In this process, eldest daughter syndrome reproduces domestic gender inequality across generations and offloads such inequality from one part of the world to another.
What can we do?
The “cure” might seem simple – we need families to recognise the unfair burden that may have been placed on the eldest daughter and to redistribute household responsibilities more equally.
Yet, doing so is far from straightforward. It requires male family members in particular to step up their contribution to domestic work. In turn, it requires us to “undo” centuries of thinking about housework and care as something gendered and “feminine”.
To achieve that, we need to first recognise the problem that domestic labour, particularly labour performed by children and eldest daughters, which goes largely unseen, unpaid and under-valued.
In the 2023 UK Budget, the £4 billion investment in extending childcare coverage sheds some light on the sheer economic value of childcare, which, although massive, represents only a tiny fraction of the extensive range of domestic responsibilities disproportionately shouldered by women and often eldest daughters.
But we can’t change something we can’t see. This is why being more aware of eldest daughter syndrome, not only as an individual struggle but also as an issue of gender inequality, is a good start.
What Is Eldest Daughter Syndrome & How Do I Heal?
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet
“Being an eldest daughter is like an unpaid internship for the rest of your life. ” This tweet recently stopped me in my tracks, which rarely happens (with the exception of red carpet footage of Paul Mescal speaking Gaelic). It received thousands of likes, with many flocking to the comments section in unanimous agreement. One Twitter user even replied: “But at least interns get credit.” I felt vindicated.
Growing up as the oldest daughter in my family, I always noticed that my parents tended to be stricter with me, that a lot of the housework fell to me, and that I was regularly (and still am) expected to mediate in arguments between family members. I was also told to get a part-time job as soon as I turned 16, whereas my brother was given the freedom to focus on his studies. At 11, I witnessed the ugliness of divorce firsthand and was often my mom’s emotional support. With her working full-time as a single mother to provide for us, sometimes the task of cleaning, cooking, and looking after my brother — who is three years younger — went to me. Given the chance, I would do it again, but it hasn’t curbed the feelings of resentment that creep in from time to time. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
are u okay or are u the eldest daughter
— eula (@eulatales) May 19, 2022
All over the internet, creators have been sharing their grievances about how being the oldest daughter is the biggest scam of all, criticizing the invisible labor you undertake when you are not only the first-born, but also a woman. One TikTok shows a creator with a weary expression on her face and the caption: “POV: you’re the eldest daughter and you just mediated an argument between your sister, your mom, and your dad.” In another video, a creator says: “So we’ve already accepted that oldest daughters are the unappreciated backbone of the family?” Others talk about sacrifices made along the way, such as acting as second parents to their siblings, lamenting how they “[were] literally the trial run for [their] parents” or commenting “we should start a support group.” The hashtag #EldestDaughterSyndrome — where TikTok users unpack supposedly common personality traits that affect first-born daughters, such as perfectionism, people-pleasing, guilt complexes, control issues, and jealousy — has amassed 7. 8 million views.
“Until fairly recently, the importance of siblings in terms of individual children’s psychological development and birth order was neglected by researchers, despite the fact that in both the U.K. and the U.S., around 80% of children still grow up with at least one brother or sister,” says Louise Tyler, a BACP-accredited counselor based in the U.K. “In fact, these things are now seen to be significant. Personality is shaped by a mixture of genetics, upbringing, societal expectations, environment, life experiences, and health. Even the upbringing aspect is relevant, as each child will be born and raised in a specific set of circumstances at any given time in the life of the family.”
In the early 1900s, Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler (who was the second of seven children) coined birth order theory, proposing that the order in which children are born has a profound impact on their individual personalities. Adler proposed that first-borns tend to be neurotic, conservative, and dutiful; middle children are competitive, rebellious, and people-pleasers; while youngest siblings tend to be creative, attention-seeking, and independent. Since then, many studies claim to have debunked Adler’s theory, suggesting that while there might not be a concrete, proven link between your birth order and how you turn out, it is how parents and children react to birth order that has an impact.
This “how” covers what parents might subconsciously expect (or not expect) from you as a result of birth order or unintentional gender bias. Tyler supposes it’s these expectations that create phenomena such as eldest daughter syndrome. On TikTok, many eldest daughters describe feeling like they have had to grow up more quickly or even forfeit their childhood to substitute for their parents. “This is called parentification, and girls can be more likely (although it’s not always the case) to take on this role,” says Tyler. “This could be due to gender stereotyping that can end up having a self-fulfilling prophecy — a daughter may early on be labelled as a ‘good girl,’ ‘no trouble,’ ‘a big help.’ As a child receives these messages, they can feel pressured to keep up these behaviors even when they don’t want to. This can lead to them learning to suppress their own needs and emotions later on. Boys are more likely to be labelled ‘the cheeky one,’ ‘a handful,’ or ‘needs to get outside to run around.'”
@itskennysworld Replying to @abcdefghijk_lmnopgrstuvz #itskennysworld #trending #blowthisup #fyp #tiktokim19 #notaminor #educational #oldestdaughtersyndrome #childhoodtrauma ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey
Parentification, Tyler adds, is more likely to happen in families where there is difficulty or dysfunction. “Offspring can end up taking on some of the roles, worries, and responsibilities of the parents,” she says. “Whereas things like mental health difficulties, addiction issues, and generational trauma are much more out in the open now. Even a decade ago, these things were kept behind closed doors and often children were left to pick up the pieces, keeping things secret behind a wall of shame so as to make things appear normal. “
A video unpacking eldest daughter syndrome from Kennedy, 19, a New York-based TikTok creator, has 55.5k views and over 5k comments. Kennedy tells Refinery29 that being a first-born daughter has definitely shaped her personality. “I didn’t even notice how different and intense my mom’s parenting originally was until my younger siblings were born,” she says. “I have a 10-year-old sister and a soon-to-be 2-year-old brother, and while my mom definitely loves us all equally and we are her life, she parents them much more gently than she did me. Granted, our living situations are very different than when it was just the two of us now that she’s married and we live much more comfortably. But as I got older, my mom realized a lot of her parenting techniques were abusive (again, generational trauma) and she unlearned a lot of them once my sister was born.”
@joycehasatiktok in other news, this cheesecake from mümü is delicious #eldestdaughter #eldestchild #immigrantparents #growingupasian #koreanparents #lovelanguage ♬ original sound – Joyce
There is no denying the additional layers that exist when taking into consideration factors like social and economic inequalities, religion, cultural background, and race. In an emotional TikTok, which has had over 750k views, Aneira, a 21-year-old art student, unpacks her frustration at being the eldest daughter. “Almost everyone in my Southeast Asian family relies on me,” she tells Refinery29. “In my culture, family always should be prioritized and the older you get, the more responsibility you have. Being the first daughter and first granddaughter of the family, I was taught that I have to take care of everyone around me. I was also taught that everyone looks up to me, and that I have to be perfect because I’m a role model in the family. In my experience, it’s rather lonely and hard, especially [on] my mental health. It’s like everyone can make mistakes except me.”
Joyce, 25, is an LA-based TikTok creator who has gone viral for videos such as “eldest daughter of immigrant parents check in,” “me entering my disappointment child era,” and “my younger siblings don’t share the same experience as me.” In her videos, she addresses how therapy has helped her get to the root of her “low self-esteem,” “anxiety,” and “sensitive people-pleasing. “
“I have two younger siblings, the youngest one and I being almost a decade apart. There are generational differences as well as a completely different set of experiences with each of our parents,” she tells Refinery29. “I struggled a lot with jealousy. I felt that it was almost unfair that as kids they were able to get away with more things and they got praised for little things that were simply expected from me. I think it’s left a lasting effect on my self-confidence and sense of adequacy, but it’s something I’m working on and I don’t blame my siblings.”
Of course, there are exceptions. None of this is to say that all first-born daughters have unresolved trauma from their upbringing, or that youngest or middle siblings never do. Every childhood has its own set of challenges and it would be limiting and altogether untrue to suggest otherwise. But while eldest daughter syndrome may be an internet-coined non-medical term, there’s no ignoring the existence of a large community of first-born women who feel the same way.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Home Girls Unite (@homegirlsunite)
“The internet and platforms such as TikTok have reduced this loneliness for many,” says Yasin, 26, cofounder of Home Girls Unite, a London-based nonprofit organization, international community, and support group for eldest daughters by eldest daughters. “[They are] spaces where eldest daughters can speak about their experiences without any worry that their families will ever see them. Comment sections may have unintentionally become a support system between eldest daughters through sharing and supporting one another.”
Started back in 2018 by Yasin and her best friend Hanna, 25, Home Girls Unite has over 11.7k followers on Twitter and provides mental health support services with in-house therapists, including one-to-one and group therapy sessions. Even the in-house therapists are eldest daughters.
“Feeling validated is important because many of us have grown up in homes where our feelings were never validated,” says Yasin. “This is especially true for eldest daughters from immigrant homes because some parents quickly dismiss their feelings and may often accuse their daughters of being westernized.”
It is also important to encourage balanced conversations that don’t veer too severely towards blaming parents or siblings without trying to understand why something might be the way it is. “Many immigrant parents are keen to preserve the cultural values they had known in their country of origin, meaning that when they migrate, they are likely to continue upholding those cultural values and norms in many aspects of their lives, including in the household and their parenting styles,” says Yasin. “This parenting is often only preserved for the daughters due to the patriarchal nature of many immigrant households and communities. ”
Ultimately, Yasin tells Refinery29, the underlying aim of Home Girls Unite is to make young women feel understood and seen. “Having a space where you can be heard, free of judgement, and receive culturally appropriate support means that eldest daughters can be heard, supported, and made to feel validated about their experiences,” she says.
Whether or not you’re from an immigrant background, and regardless of your birth order, if you have experienced any of the behaviors described in this piece, Home Girls Unite suggests a few ways you can start to heal:
Remember that it’s okay to start over
Deciding to live life for yourself can come with a lot of guilt but remember you deserve good things, just like other people in your life.
Try and unlearn people-pleasing
People are very rarely pleased. Learn to say no.
Seek professional support
Finding a therapist or psychologist may be a good starting point for your healing journey.
Join Home Girls Unite
It will help you understand your eldest daughter role better, giving you the tools to start working through the stresses that come with the role.
Big Brother Syndrome. – gelena_s — LiveJournal
Well, or sisters. My husband was a real big brother. Already almost twelve years older than the youngest. Loved him, actually nursed him. The one, when we got married, was terribly jealous at first – well, at ten eleven, this is normal, actually. But then he began to consider, too, relatives. Later I joked that my husband and I had already rehearsed the role of father-in-law and mother-in-law.
The relationship has always been close. But I gave him unsolicited advice only once. When he entered the DSU and got a deuce at the very first exam in mathematics, which he passed to the “machine”. That is, with automatic processing of results, it seems. I don’t remember how long ago it was. He arrived upset and said that he had decided everything correctly, but received a deuce. And then I was visiting them with a child. And so I sorted out the problem with him and realized that he actually decided correctly. And advised him to go the next day to appeal. Neither he nor my mother-in-law knew about it.
And when I was a student, I worked a couple of internships in the admission committee. So in the question furychila. And yes, the next day, my husband’s brother went to the Dnieper and proved that he had decided everything correctly and corrected the deuce to a four and then entered the DSU.
Then When he came to live and earn some money (at that time in Ukraine it was bad with earnings) and when he got married, he and his wife sometimes, when they came to us, joked that they had come for a “life-giving pendel”. But a pendel, not a pendel, it was issued at their request. We did not impose advice, but only helped in emergency situations. As they did to us recently, after the death of her husband.
The brothers argued and cursed only on the topic of electrics, where the younger one was a greater specialist with an emphasis on safety, and the older one was still a supporter of a more moderate approach. My daughter-in-law and I didn’t get into it at all.
But my grandmother was not so lucky – she did not like her elder sister very much, and the rest of the children hated this sister who nursed them with terrible force. At the age of twelve, the youngest brother ran away to the village to his grandfather and grandmother and, in an attempt to bring him back, promised to hang himself, and he promised so much that those completely uneducated parents and grandfather and grandmother believed him. And he never again came to the house where his older sister lived. Well, then he died in the war, so a beautiful reconciliation never took place.
I remember from my grandmother that she said – my sister always pinched them, called them names and set up all sorts of meanness – if she spoiled something, then she blamed them. If we remove the fact that, of course, blaming a baby on a seven-year-old child over and over again is not the best practice (but it was like that in almost all families then), then let’s be honest, brotherly sisterly relations did not work out here. None of the brothers and sisters came to my sister’s funeral afterwards. And there was no question of respect for the Elder sister. But they were always afraid of her.
So what is this big brother syndrome? What rights does an older brother have? And what can the younger ones owe him? And how can this be broadcast in relation to countries? And if you are older or younger yourself, in what areas were you ready to learn from the elders or teach them? And in which you would not let them in under any circumstances, or would you not climb yourself?
“Big Sister Syndrome”: why it occurs and how it affects our future
Adults often underestimate youth social networks, call them a waste of time and think that they are only suitable for videos with cute animals, dancing and other antics. However, seemingly funny videos can be one of the forms of communication between young people about really serious problems and inner experiences.
For example, recently there has been a lot of discussion on TikTok about “big sister syndrome”. Users in the form of ironic sketches began to spread their thoughts about how they were affected by the birth of a second (or more) child in the family.
There are now over 173 million clips under the hashtag #oldersister. We decided to find out if this syndrome really exists, how it affects girls and how dangerous it is for their future.
“Big Sister Syndrome” is a special case of the more well-known phenomenon – “older child syndrome”.
Before the birth of a brother or sister, the eldest child, being the only one, was the center of the family, he had little reason to doubt the love of his parents. With the advent of a brother or sister, in his opinion, the situation changed dramatically – the love of parents had to be shared with someone else.
“This is how the “trauma of dethronement” arises. The child ceases to be the only one, envy arises and competition is formed. And this is normal, it is biologically and psychologically obvious, ”says psychologist and psychotherapist Irina Belousova.
Most often, children between the ages of three and six find themselves in this situation, they are just going through the Oedipal period – they learn to identify themselves, come to terms with their “I”. In a situation where parents devote more time to other children, the child experiences difficulties with self-determination and independence too early and begins to look for the cause of the problem in himself.
“He remembers how he was loved before the birth of his brother or sister and how they cut off attention after. And the child’s psyche is usually egocentric and gives the installation: “Everything that happens is all because of me,” the psychologist explains. In her opinion, girls are more difficult to cope with this complex, so this syndrome has separated into a separate phenomenon.
The path to success
There are two sides to the development of Big Sister Syndrome. The first is the girl’s thoughts that she can win back the love of her parents. For example, with the help of good grades, certificates or merit in sports.
“She has an illusion: “If I bring achievements and be good, they will probably return the lost “throne” to me. And parents do not understand what is behind the fives and the Olympiad diplomas, which can already be pasted over the walls. They really sincerely rejoice at the success of the older child, and this, in turn, only “sharpens” the older sister for achievements even more, ”says Irina Belousova.
If this situation is not accompanied by at least some manifestation of warmth from the parents, then in adulthood a person can become emotionally deaf and melancholic, as well as begin to suffer from problems in the sexual sphere and low self-esteem.
“Older sisters who live in constant struggle are always teetering on the fine line between flash of triumph and depression. In such cases, aggression towards parents for rejection – forbidden, unaccepted, unreasonable – turns on one’s own “I”.