What is eldest daughter syndrome?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Mar 22, 2024

What is eldest daughter syndrome?

It’s a term that has blown up on social media, but a new study has added weight to the phenomenon. So what is it, what’s the impact, and how can we break free of it?

Family dynamics are often uniquely complex but when, in 2023, #EldestDaughterSyndrome began trending on TikTok, millions of people were united by what appeared to be a shared experience.

‘Eldest daughter syndrome’ refers to the emotional burden that the eldest daughter tends to take on within the family unit. It may involve looking out for younger siblings, helping out around the house more than others may, and taking on responsibilities beyond their years. But while this experience originates in childhood, eldest daughter syndrome appears to last a lifetime, with older women joining the conversation to share how the responsibilities extend into adulthood when caring for ageing parents and taking charge of wider family unit admin.

Although not a diagnosable condition, the experience of eldest daughters taking on more than their fair share of responsibilities appears to be widely relatable, and talking about it may help individuals explore and understand their own experiences.

Symptoms and behaviours may include:

  • Automatically taking on leadership roles
  • Consistently putting others' needs above your own
  • Feeling responsible for other people's feelings and actions
  • Habitually making decisions for other people
  • Perfectionism
  • Struggling to rest
  • Reluctancy around saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries
  • Seeking validation from parents and authority figures
  • Feeling as though you need to role model good behaviours
  • High levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout

The experience struck a chord with many when it blew up online but, now, new research from a University of California, Los Angeles research team, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, has discovered that eldest daughters do, in fact, tend to mature at a faster rate than normal – providing a biological basis for this phenomenon.

In the 15-year-long study, it was identified that earlier patterns of adrenal puberty (the first signs of puberty such as body hair growth, acne, and cognitive maturation) occurred in first-born daughters, with researchers finding a correlation between this effect in the daughters and their mothers’ having experienced high levels of prenatal stress – the same was not observed in firstborn boys or daughters who were not firstborn.

UCLA anthropologist Molly Fox, who led the study, explains that their eldest daughter’s early maturations may enable her to help her mother raise other children successfully, and notes that these findings mark the first time the phenomena has been examined through an evolutionary lens.

“This research adds to the body of knowledge in our field showing the significant and lifelong impacts to women and their offspring when it comes to prenatal emotional, environmental and other factors,” Molly Fox said. “This is important as we continue to come up with practical and policy solutions that contribute to greater access to healthcare and the general wellbeing of pregnant mothers.”

Eldest daughter burnout

Behind the catchy social media term, the phenomena can have a real impact. Young women may take on responsibilities beyond what is appropriate for their age, which can be placed before their other emotional needs. Getting into habits of taking on a large proportion of domestic labour can become exhausting – and they may feel that, even though they are exhausted, they are responsible for ensuring everyone else is OK.

Those who experience this may also struggle with perfectionism, believing that they must always be the responsible role model. They may also have difficulties around over-functioning, particularly in relationships – a term which refers to when an individual takes responsibility for others – such as partners, friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. In practice, this may look like reminding others of tasks they need to complete, always being the one who makes plans for a group, regularly making decisions for others, and holding back your own beliefs in order to manage another person’s reaction.

With all this mental load flowing alongside the practical burdens that the eldest daughter may be taking, it’s easy to see how anxiety, stress, and burnout can take over.

Finding a solution

As Molly Fox expressed, the new research suggests that there may be an evolutionary element to eldest daughter syndrome, which may prompt governing bodies to relook at the care and support that is offered to pregnant mothers.

But, beyond that, breaking down intergenerational patterns that have led to women and girls taking on the brunt of domestic labour is key. Challenging the idea that domestic work and child-rearing is a feminine duty, and role modelling equal relationships to the next generation goes a long way in challenging the behaviour.

Of course, neither of these options are quick fixes. Such a fix doesn’t exist – eldest daughter syndrome is built upon centuries of culture and ideas about the roles that women play in family dynamics. But questioning that is the first step to undoing it.

Join 100,000+ subscribers

Stay in the loop with everything Happiful

We care about your data, read our privacy policy
Our Vision

We’re on a mission to create a healthier, happier, more sustainable society.