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What is ‘the eldest daughter syndrome’? Eldest daughters on TikTok are getting candid about the pressure to parent

Many young women have taken to TikTok recently to share their experience with being the eldest daughter. In doing so, they are finding solace with other eldest daughters who have had similar lived experiences.

TikTok has become a prominent platform for eldest daughters to speak candidly about the inherited pressure to take on the emotional and physical responsibilities of a parent. This role reversal — when “the child gets pulled into the role of the emotional, physical or logistical caregiver for the parent” — is called “parentification,” per Verywell Mind.

Emotional versus instrumental parentification

According to Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, there are two types of parentification: emotional parentification, which is when the child “provides the parent emotional support in the form of giving advice, holding secrets, comforting siblings during arguments and defusing conflict,” and instrumental parentification, which is when the child is “tasked with adult responsibilities, such as cooking dinner, managing finances or being responsible for their siblings.”

Statistically, young girls have been known to complete more chores than young boys, and Anju Malhotra, a professor in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and former principal adviser on gender and development at UNICEF, says this trend intensifies as girls reach adolescence. Data obtained by UNICEF in 2016 found that girls are saddled with a “disproportionate burden of domestic work” as compared with boys and spend 30% more time doing housework than them.

“As a result, girls sacrifice important opportunities to learn, grow and just enjoy their childhood,” Malhotra said in the report. “This unequal distribution of labor among children also perpetuates gender stereotypes and the double-burden on women and girls across generations.”

‘My parents had drilled it into my head to always be looking out for my sister, to give her what she needs.’

The hashtag #eldestdaughtersyndrome currently has 31 million views on TikTok.

Vidhusha Thirugnanam (@vidhu.thiru), a content creator based in Toronto, Ontario, first felt the pressure of being the eldest daughter at just 4 years old.

“I have a vivid memory when I was probably around 4 years old at Disneyland, my younger sister was 2 at the time. My parents had drilled it into my head to always be looking out for my sister, to give her what she needs,” Thirugnanam told In The Know by Yahoo via email. “I was taught to be responsible from a young age, to care for myself and my younger siblings, make decisions, get good grades, set a good example, be a good role model.

“I had gotten a job and my driver’s license before any of my other friends,” she continued. “In terms of emotional maturity and sense of responsibility, the oldest sibling always matures the fastest. Even now I find so many of the things from my childhood highly nostalgic, and I indulge myself into experiencing them again because in many ways I didn’t get that pleasure when I was younger.”

TikTok has allowed Thirugnanam the space to not only advocate for her own mental health but to connect with other eldest daughters who’ve suffered the same trauma.

“When I first started posting TikToks about my experiences as an oldest daughter I did not expect the overwhelming amount of support that I received. There were thousands of women that have shared and resonated with my experiences,” she revealed. “We weren’t alone in our experiences and hardships of being the oldest daughter; feeling like we had to carry our families on our backs from a very young age. I think the hardest thing about being the oldest daughter is that they rarely get the recognition they deserve.”

Eldest daughters, explained Thirugnanam, are often required to appear strong at all times — despite what may actually be going on behind the scenes.

“Families don’t often see the pain in us oldest daughters because we’ve become so conditioned to being strong. Most times we’re villainized if we break from the strong, obedient persona. Specifically in immigrant households, so much is expected of a woman,” she added. “I would say, yes, it is a common phenomena we see with immigrant families, and that’s why I’m dedicated to continue sharing my advice and experiences as the oldest daughter. To showcase the strength that it truly takes to be that role in an immigrant family, and to stand in solidarity with all the oldest daughters who have gone through the same thing. I am here, and I see and hear all of you.”

The burden of providing emotional support

Oftentimes, when a child is forced into the position of a parent, they lack the developmental capacity to adequately comprehend the breadth of the situation, Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told In The Know by Yahoo.

“Children who undergo parentification often find themselves in situations where they are compelled to provide guidance on issues that surpass their developmental comprehension,” Cook-McKay shared via email. “They may also be called upon to act as mediators during household conflicts, essentially adopting the role of a mature figure within the family’s dynamics. Rather than receiving emotional support from their parents, these children assume the responsibility of offering emotional support, even in situations that are emotionally intricate and beyond their age.”

Whitley Louvier, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas and New York, added that there is, in fact, a correlation between being the eldest daughter and feeling disinclined to have kids of your own.

“I have heard many of my female clients who experienced parentification discuss their reluctance to have children. Often this could be a direct result of wanting less responsibility, a way to make up for themselves the freedom and independence they lost as children. Others have expressed a worry of inadvertently putting their own children in the same position as they were in,” she wrote in an email.

For Steph Magallen (@journeywithsteph), a wellness creator in Manila, Philippines, bringing honor to her family was deeply rooted in being the eldest daughter.

“Now that I am an adult, it feels like an unhealed wound, yearning for validation in the same way,” Magallen also told In The Know by Yahoo through email. “The praise they gave me was my concept of love. When I could no longer provide them with pride through my achievements because life took its toll on me, I felt unloved. It seemed that I was only loved if I could provide something for them. That’s why I learned to live life for others – to fulfill their expectations, seek validation and prioritize their happiness over mine.”

Magallen said she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and persistent depressive disorder in 2022. As someone who is from a “not well-off” family, she claims mental health wasn’t something that was discussed.

“I sought professional help because I could no longer function, and as the eldest daughter, I thought I always must,” she admitted.

Healing as an eldest daughter

Due to the “deeply ingrained patterns” of consistently putting the needs of their family members before their own, asking for help as an eldest daughter may be difficult, added Cook-McKay. Seeking professional help from someone with expertise in parentification, however, should be prioritized.

“Such a therapist can effectively empathize with the individual’s struggles, validate their emotions and provide guidance in managing any lingering feelings of anger or resentment that may have developed as a result of their parentification experience,” she explained. “The therapist can collaborate with the individual to help them construct a new, more empowering narrative about themselves. This narrative is centered around self-care, self-worth and personal growth, ultimately promoting their well-being and overall mental health.”

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