Do you struggle with boundaries, self-advocacy, and identity or were you the oldest daughter of the family who took on the emotional needs in the household and constantly put your own needs on the back-burner? Recently, many eldest daughters have been taking to social media to lament about their experiences with what has been coined as “Eldest Daughter Syndrome” and the impacts it’s had on their relationships and mental health.
Eldest Daughter Syndrome (EDS), while not an official psychiatric diagnosis, is an often-unconscious family role that many young girls inherit as the oldest child, in which they find themselves doing more domestic labour, emotional caretaking, and face higher expectations than their younger siblings. Read on to learn more about the phenomenon of the eldest daughter and how it can impact women, even into their adult life.
Unpacking Eldest Daughter Syndrome
Let’s paint a picture of the typical eldest daughter. Eldest daughter plays an important role in the family system. You can find her taking on emotional, physical, and domestic labor that is not exactly developmentally appreciate. Eldest daughter typically feels as if she has to take care of everything and everyone around her and takes on a lot of responsibility from a young age. She struggles with perfectionism due to the high expectations placed on her as the first-born and notices that her siblings are given more freedom to be their authentic selves.
Eldest daughter mediates family conflict as she feels it’s her job to keep the peace and ensure everyone is okay, even if she isn’t. She is tasked with being the role model of the family as the idealistic older sister. Eldest daughter often feels resentful and angry and might even struggle with feelings of grief over the childhood she had, or more accurately, did not have.
It’s important to note that an eldest sister isn’t always the oldest child but can also be the first-born daughter behind male siblings. As you may notice, eldest daughter syndrome is a family dynamic unique to those socialized as women and there’s a reason for that.
In patriarchal societies, women typically are assigned implicit roles of undertaking disproportionate domestic and emotional labor of the family system. Many women are conditioned to be self-sacrificing, martyrs, and prioritize centering the men of the family. The eldest daughter often takes on those very roles as a child and then frequently repeats the familiar pattern in adult relationships because it’s all she knows and if she played that role well, she was rewarded for it by being labeled a “good girl.”
Signs of Eldest Daughter Syndrome in Adulthood
You Take on Too Much Responsibility
Eldest daughters often shoulder a heavy responsibility whether it’s mediating family arguments, making sure everyone is in a good mood, and going to “fix-it mode” when there is discord. It’s not uncommon that eldest daughters often bear the brunt of caretaking younger siblings beyond what should be expected of them as a child. In adulthood, this can look like over-working yourself by taking on more projects than you can realistically handle, doing more household labor than the people you live with, and making sure that the people around you are always enjoying themselves.
You Struggle with Perfectionism
As an eldest daughter, it likely felt like there was a lot of pressure to be perfect and deep shame when it felt like you didn’t succeed at something. It’s typical for some parents to be harder on the first-born child as the parent(s) are likely trying to be the “perfect parent,” and since that is not possible, that pressure the eldest daughter experiences often metabolizes into deep seated perfectionism. As an adult, this might show up as feeling you need to strive for perfection in all areas of your life and likely are very hard on yourself when you receive feedback that you missed something or could have done better.
You’re a People Pleaser
For many eldest daughters, people pleasing is a habit that runs deep. It might feel excruciating to tell people “No,” set boundaries, or advocate for what you need. Being in conflict likely triggers feelings of discomfort because you are not used to having your needs be heard, validated, and respected. This likely shows up in your adult friendships and romantic relationships and it might even be unconscious since this type of protective behavior forms at such a formative time of your young life.
Do you find yourself over-functioning for people who are under-functioning? Perhaps you have a partner – you might be the one who takes care of all the housework, planning all the dates, coordinating vacations, scheduling doctor’s appointments, and more because it feels like your partner just can’t or won’t find it in themselves to do these things themselves. Because of the aforementioned impulse to people please and potential avoidance around asking for help, it can be really hard to back away from doing these important tasks as you likely fear if you don’t do them, no one else will.
Overcoming Eldest Daughter Syndrome
If in reading this, you’ve realize that you’re experiencing eldest daughter syndrome, here are some ways you can start prioritizing yourself.
Practice Self Care
Self care is more than just treating yourself to a nice bubble bath or a luxurious spa day. Of course, those things can be nice, but deeper self care is a more intentional inside job. For many eldest daughter’s the concept of self care feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar since your capacity for care has always centered around nurturing others. Self care can be saying no to something you don’t want to do, taking yourself on a solo date, giving yourself permission to allow someone else to take care of something you typically do, and whatever else you need to feel in service of yourself. Self care is an act of learning how not to abandon yourself when that has been the default for so long.
Tend to Your Inner Child
As an eldest daughter, you might feel like you have a wounded inner child within you that is still hurting and needs healing. It can be challenging for people to hold space for their inner child because people often want to distance themselves from that painful and neglected part of themselves. This is where the concept of reparenting can be profoundly empowering. Your inner child may not have been tended to the way she needed; however, you have the power to provide yourself what you always needed when you were younger.
Ask for Help When Needed!
Asking for help when you’re an eldest daughter can be much easier said than done. Asking for help can feel threatening to the outer shell of perfectionism that has been so carefully curated over the years. Remind yourself that it’s okay to need support and that people who love you likely would be happy to step in and help you when they are needed. Being able to ask for help in a powerful step in strengthening your relationships and bolstering more authentic connections with others as it can aid in decreasing feelings of resentment.
Healing the Eldest Daughter
It’s important to acknowledge how difficult and painful it can be to heal from eldest daughter syndrome. Additionally, it can be lonely if you have people in your life who are committed to your staying within that role and feel threatened by your self-empowerment and autonomy. Breaking these cycles is brave and important work! Know that you are deserving of healing and inherently have to strength within you to thrive.