Navigating the Challenges of Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Managing expectations and finding balance

<p>Katiuscia Noseda / Getty Images</p>

Katiuscia Noseda / Getty Images

Medically reviewed by Yolanda Renteria, LPC

Eldest daughter syndrome is a colloquial term used to describe the complex experience of being the eldest female-identifying child. If you are a big sister or the oldest girl in your family, you probably already have a sense of what we're talking about.

This experience stems from birth-order dynamics that tend to occur in families; in this case, eldest daughters are often given outsized responsibility for caregiving, household responsibilities, and emotional labor. Eldest daughters often assume these duties at an early age, a burden that can shape personality, behaviors, relationships, and well-being throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

According to San Francisco therapist Dr. Avigail Lev, the dynamics within a family depend on factors such as the number of siblings. Suppose she is put into a parentified role where she has to mother, nurture, or take responsibility for these younger siblings. In that case, it can have a significant impact on her relationship and interactions with them.

Remember that eldest daughter syndrome isn't a condition recognized by the official "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5-TR). Instead, it is a pattern many people have noticed in their lives, either from first-hand experience or by witnessing these effects in their own families.

At a Glance

Eldest daughter syndrome may not be a formally recognized term, but it’s an experience that is familiar to many girls and women. This role often comes with burdens and challenges that can have a lasting effect on behavior, relationships, and emotional well-being. Keep reading to learn more about why first-born daughters often become 'parents in training' and the complex ways this can affect relationship dynamics.

Understanding Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Both traditional gender roles and birth-order effects influence the pressures felt by eldest daughters. Gender stereotypes suggest that women should be nurturing, natural caregivers, making the eldest daughter one of the default caregivers in the family. Among siblings, eldest siblings tend to face higher expectations when it comes to achievements, behaviors, and responsibilities placed by parents.

"The eldest daughter or eldest siblings, in general, are kind of like the 'test' siblings because they are the first child. The next child gets better treatment, benefiting from the learnings from the first child,” Dr. Lev says.

This two-fold threat means eldest daughters often face incredibly high expectations from family members. These daughters are expected to set the 'gold standard' example that other siblings will follow. They also experience parentification from an early age, where they are expected to take responsibility for their younger siblings, acting almost as a defacto parent when mom or dad aren't around.

From setting a good example for siblings to follow to being expected to step into a parental role at a moment's notice, eldest daughters often grapple with responsibilities far beyond their years and developmentally appropriate abilities.


Parentification is a phenomenon in which children are forced to assume roles similar to those of an adult or parent long before they are developmentally prepared for such responsibilities.

Even still, eldest daughters are often tasked with taking on household tasks and chores that younger siblings are never given. This can also put first-born girls in the position of playing the villain or scapegoat in the family. They are often described as bossy or domineering by younger siblings, but also face the blame from parents when things don't go according to plan.

This creates enormous pressure to succeed, contribute to the family's success, and ensure everyone is cared for, happy, and content.

Related: Understanding Oldest Child Syndrome and How It Shapes Childhood Development

Scientific Evidence of Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Eldest daughter syndrome has received considerable attention on social media in recent years, but researchers have also found solid evidence to support this tendency. In one 15-year longitudinal study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles, researchers found that first-born daughters mature faster and are more likely to experience adrenal puberty.

Adrenal puberty involves changes such as the growth of body hair and certain aspects of cognitive maturation without other aspects of puberty, like breast development and menstruation. The study found that adrenal puberty was more common in eldest daughters whose mothers experienced high levels of prenatal stress.


The researchers suggest that such early maturation enables eldest daughters to help their mothers raise subsequent children.

The Psychological Impact

Being the eldest daughter in the family can come with additional emotional stress. Research has shown that parentification is associated with a range of negative consequences, including increased anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and personality disorders. While it can help children become more efficient in terms of task management and school achievement, this can contribute to problems like compulsive overwork.

Girls who experience eldest daughter syndrome may face challenges with:


Research suggests that first-born children tend to have more advanced cognitive development, which may help them become more prepared for school. This can be advantageous, but it can also contribute to high expectations and perfectionism.

Eldest daughters may experience tremendous pressure to meet their parents' and other family members' high expectations. This can lead to high achievement, but it can also contribute to high levels of perfectionism that can damage mental well-being.


This tendency toward perfectionism combined with the high level of responsibility that eldest daughters are given can become a recipe for anxiety and stress. Trying to fulfill many roles, take on too many tasks, and meet everyone's expectations can cause the eldest daughters to feel overwhelmed.

Identity Challenges

Girls may also find themselves struggling to create an identity outside of the roles imposed on them by their families. This can make it hard to identify and pursue personal goals that are separate from their family's expectations.

Relationship Problems

Dr. Lev notes that sibling relationships can vary depending on the siblings' gender. With younger brothers, there is often less competition and less resentment. Relationships with younger sisters may be more complicated, she notes.

"Usually, with two female daughters, the younger sibling is more carefree and confident, while the older sibling tends to be more responsible, more successful, and sees the family dynamics more accurately than the younger siblings," Dr. Lev says.

The parentification that eldest daughters experience within their own families can carry over to later adult relationships, including romantic relationships and friendships. It isn't uncommon for eldest daughters to take on a similar role of responsibility within their friend groups or with their partners.


This can make it hard for them to assert their own boundaries, and they may find themselves drawn to people who rely on them for support and care.


High expectations and perfectionism often leave eldest daughters feeling like nothing they do is good enough. This can have a damaging effect on self-concept and self-esteem.

Lack of Support

Eldest daughters often find themselves tasked with solving problems and caring for others on their own. Because they always feel like they need to be strong and self-reliant, they may struggle to ask for help when they need it. This can create feelings of isolation and loneliness and make it hard for people to get the support that they need.

Eldest daughters need to find a way to balance their own needs with the family's needs. But this isn't always easy, particularly when you've been conditioned to take on more responsibility.

Unless they learn to find a balance between these competing demands, girls and women may find themselves struggling with feelings of guilt, anxiety, poor boundaries, and excessive pressure.

Cultural and Societal Factors

Cultural and societal norms can also contribute to eldest daughter syndrome. Cultural norms may dictate that elder siblings fulfill certain roles in the family, particularly when those children are girls.

These norms also intersect with traditional gender roles and expectations. Because stereotypical norms suggest that women and girls are nurturing caregivers, eldest daughters are often tasked with living up to these roles.

Social and economic inequities also impact eldest daughters in various ways. When families face economic hardships, the oldest daughter may need to work to provide financial support or give up other opportunities to care for siblings while her parents work. These inequalities can impact other areas of her life, including access to education, work advancement, and healthcare.


Eldest daughters from marginalized backgrounds also face the compound effects of parentification, discrimination, and systemic barriers that further harm their opportunities and access to resources.

Breaking the Cycle

Dr. Lev explains that the single most important thing you can do to cope with being the eldest daughter is to let go of the need to have your family see your reality. "If you're in the villain role in the family, see if you can just accept it and not try to change the family system's perspective," she says.

"The eldest daughter usually views the family system very differently if she has siblings. The younger siblings tend to idealize the parents and see the better parts of the parents and the family system. The eldest daughter needs to let go of any desire to shape the perspective or get them to see reality," she explains.

Other strategies that Lev suggests include the following:

Learn Assertiveness Skills and Develop Strong Boundaries

Because eldest daughters are often conditioned to take responsibility for others, it’s important to create strong boundaries and learn how to assert one's needs when such lines are crossed.

Dr. Lev notes that eldest daughters are sometimes more susceptible to getting into relationships with people who are needy, codependent, or who push her into a caretaker role.

"She needs to have very good boundaries, assert her needs, and stand up for herself," she says.

However, eldest daughters should be patient with themselves if they struggle with this process. This is because they've learned to feel loved through this parentified role and may feel a lot of guilt setting boundaries because they have grown up believing they are responsible for the duties they were assigned.

Differentiate Between Independence and Excessive Self-Reliance

The sense of independence you might have gained as the eldest daughter can be a strength, but it can become a hindrance if it leads to your becoming so self-reliant that you cannot ask for or accept help when needed.

Consider situations where you might be taking on too much and look for opportunities to get help and nurturing from others instead of being the one always to give it, Dr. Lev says.

Practicing Self-Compassion and Self-Care

Dr. Lev also recommends strategies like practicing self-compassion and loving-kindness meditations. This can be a powerful tool for learning to give yourself the sort of kindness, compassion, and care that you might not have received as a child.

Other self-care strategies that can help:

Dr. Lev also recommends learning:

Consider Therapy

If you are struggling with the effects of eldest daughter syndrome, consider talking to a licensed mental health professional. Psychotherapy can be a great way to process your experiences and develop new coping skills to improve your behaviors, thinking, emotions, and relationships.

"Learning tools from schema therapy to reparent herself and heal her inner child involves giving herself the things she was not given as a child and learning to meet the needs that were not met," Dr. Lev says.

Related: The 13 Best Online Therapy Services That Are Tried, Tested, and Expert-Approved

Personal Stories and Perspectives on Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Kristen Jacobsen, LCPC, a licensed therapist and owner of Cathartic Space Counseling, has personal experience with the heavy toll that being the oldest daughter can bring. She notes that as the eldest daughter in her family, there was constant pressure to set the right example, put her sibling's needs before her own, and act as the mediator in disputes.

"While this nurtured a sense of responsibility and empathy, it also left little room for vulnerability or personal struggles. I found myself adopting a 'strong facade,' even when I felt overwhelmed."

Kristen Jacobsen, LCPC

In her own life, she noticed that this early conditioning led to people-pleasing tendencies. "In friendships and romantic relationships, I'd automatically assume the role of the listener, the supporter, always ready to offer advice or a shoulder to lean on, sometimes forgetting that it's a two-way street," she explains.

For Jessica Plonchak (LCSW, MBA, LCADC), the Executive Clinical Director at ChoicePoint Health, being the eldest daughter meant guilt trips and a prevailing feeling of being insufficient.

In addition to protecting and caring for younger siblings, she also describes the need to protect parents from seeing these struggles. Plonchak explains that this often means needing your parents but feeling like you can't ask for help because they are busy tending to the needs of younger siblings. This can create an upside-down dynamic, where you feel you can't express discontent with the situation or allow parents to see your struggles for fear of hurting them.

"As the eldest daughter, I am always looking for ways to make sure that my parent's needs are put above mine, no matter what emotional turmoil I am going through myself."

Jessica Plonchak(LCSW, MBA, LCADC)

The emotional burdens of being the eldest daughter can interact with other aspects of identity for women and girls from marginalized backgrounds. One TikTok creator noted the challenges of being the eldest daughter in an African household. The result, she notes, was becoming "a chronic people pleaser who takes on more than they can handle."

Related: Is Middle Child Syndrome Real?

Keep in Mind

If you are the eldest daughter in your family, you probably know exactly how challenging (and often draining) it can be to juggle all of the myriad expectations and demands placed upon you by parents, siblings, and society. So when viral social videos and articles refer to this phenomenon as "eldest daughter syndrome," you likely recognize these symptoms in yourself.

It's important to remember that every family is unique. Being the eldest daughter can also create strengths, including autonomy, resilience, and the ability to take charge when needed. The key is to establish healthy boundaries, take time to care for yourself, and don't shy away from asking for a helping hand when you need it.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind.