golden child syndrome

Golden Child Syndrome: Why Narcissistic Parents Exploit Their Children

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We hear about all the toxic strategies narcissistic parents use when raising their children. They manipulate, gaslight, abuse, and sabotage their children’s growth. 

So what explains why some children of narcissists feel adored by their parent? Is that parent not really a narcissist? Is the child somehow immune to this abuse?

Golden child syndrome often happens when narcissistic parents designate a “poster child” to showcase the family’s successes and greatness. This child may be exceptionally gifted, and the parent exploits that trait to their advantage. Let’s dive in deeper.

Do Narcissistic Parents Love Their Children? 

Narcissists may claim to love their children, but they only love their projections of them. Many times, they simply want to create a miniature clone. 

Some narcissists appear attentive and compassionate raising babies or toddlers, but they can’t tolerate their child once a real identity emerges. They cannot understand or even empathize with why their children would think or do differently than them. 

Unfortunately, golden children can play a crucial role for narcissists. They want to revel in all the outside praise and attention because it only reinforces that they are a fantastic parent. 

A narcissistic parent does not have the empathy, flexibility, or patience to genuinely raise their children. They often do the bare minimum (if that). In public, however, they work hard to portray themselves as perfect, doting parents. How others perceive them is far more important than how their own children feel about them. 

What Is Golden Child Syndrome?

Nearly every parent hopes to see their child thrive and succeed in the world- this is an intrinsic motive of parenting. Even narcissists often have this desire.

But unlike healthy parents, narcissists don’t just “hope” for this outcome. Instead, from the time their children are young, they work hard to shape and control the child’s destiny.

Golden child syndrome often emerges once a parent begins noticing one child’s “special attributes.” These attributes can be anything, but they’re usually externally reinforced. For example, a daycare teacher may comment on how well the child shares their toys. A neighbor might praise the child for being “so handsome.”

Eventually, the parent starts stacking these compliments and starts grooming their child for “greatness.” That child is now on a pedestal because they maintain the narcissist’s narcissistic supply. As a result, they focus most of their attention, love, and praise on them. 

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How Does Being a Gold Child Affect The Child?

Because children inherently want to please their parents, this positive reinforcement feels great. But over time, the child starts worrying about maintaining their success. 

They might become anxious or perfectionistic about maintaining the “right” behavior. If the parent becomes angry or volatile when a mistake happens (which commonly happens within narcissistic families), the child doesn’t just feel guilty for making that error. Instead, they feel incredible shame over who they are and worry immensely about abandonment or complete unlovability. 

Golden children grow up with incredible pressure to perform. Eventually, they start internalizing that pressure. For instance, they may spend hours upon hours studying or redoing their homework. If they excel in sports, they may worry incessantly about the next game.

The parent has no flexibility for anything beyond total perfection. They raise their standards constantly, and the golden child rarely feels like they can meet those unrealistic expectations. But they keep trying- as hard as they can.

What Happens When Golden Children Become Adults? 

Leaving a toxic family dynamic doesn’t automatically mean the child can relax. On the contrary, they are often already so anxious, overachieving, and perfectionistic that the pressure only continues to accumulate. The need to please and perform simply shifts into adulthood.

Lack of Self-Worth/Self-Esteem 

Children of narcissists never feel unconditional love from their parents. This essential need is so primal, but it is neglected over and over again. Instead, these children feel they must earn and maintain love, and they live knowing the parent might yank it at any time.

As a result, golden child syndrome leaves children feeling inadequate and unloved. They only feel worth for their external accomplishments. The fear of failure often makes them feel emotionally paralyzed. Furthermore, they rarely have any experience in self-love or self-compassion, as these concepts were never modeled or reinforced.

Anxiety or Depression (Or Both)

It’s no secret that living under constant pressure often makes people feel anxious. They constantly project into the future and fear any situation where they might lack control.

Similarly, golden children may struggle with depression. Indeed, becoming an adult can feel frightening and chaotic. It might seem jarring if the parent spent so much time praising and lifting them only to discover that doesn’t instantly translate to limitless opportunities in the real world. 

Relationship Difficulties 

Golden children may face tremendous interpersonal problems in their adult relationships. In addition, because so many needs weren’t met in childhood, they may inappropriately look to meet those needs in the wrong sources.

For example, some adults with golden child syndrome essentially replicate a narcissistic family in their adulthood. They may gravitate towards other narcissists because they want to secure the love they never received from their parents. Of course, this motive is futile, as any narcissist will only recreate rejection.

Other adult children may become people-pleasers or caregivers. Because they were used to protecting the family “at all costs,” they may feel drawn to wounded people they can rescue.

Narcissistic Traits 

Unfortunately, narcissism has some genetic roots. Parents who significantly overvalue their children may breed entitlement and a lack of empathy in their own children.

Keep in mind this information doesn’t mean you’re a narcissist! Children of narcissists can pick up certain traits because that’s what they know. It’s normal to question if you’re a narcissist and worry that you are also hurting others. 

However, self-reflection is typically one of the missing pieces in narcissistic behavior- if you have empathy, compassion, and the willingness to grow and learn from others, you’re probably not a narcissist! In addition, if you have low self-esteem (as many golden children do), that’s essentially the opposite of narcissism. 

Can a Golden Child Become a Scapegoat? 

Narcissists are never satisfied with life’s current status quo. They thrive in chaos, and they poke holes in even the most stable conditions. 

Unfortunately, even the golden child isn’t immune to the narcissist’s erratic behavior. Narcissists can quickly turn on their children- and they don’t experience guilt or remorse when doing so.

Scapegoats are the “black sheep” of the family. Anyone can play the part, but families often reserve it for sick, weak, or “problematic” children. The narcissist becomes convinced that this child is the sole problem in the entire dynamic. 

Golden children may become scapegoats under a few different circumstances. First, they may do something the narcissist deems so outrageous or unacceptable that the child must be completely knocked off the pedestal. Of course, this behavior may be relatively benign, but if the narcissist is angered or embarrassed by it, the entire world seems to flip inside-out.

In other cases, golden children can become scapegoats once they start standing up for themselves or rebelling against perfectionism. Narcissistic families want to keep order and control. If a child doesn’t “maintain their role,” they suddenly become problematic. Now, they have become the main issue.

Likewise, scapegoats can “graduate” into golden children. This transformation may happen after another child loses their position. It can also occur if the scapegoat suddenly “rises” to success and other people notice. 

How Do You Heal From Golden Child Syndrome?

If you’re a golden child, you might feel frustrated or resentful about your role. You might be tired of living under pressure, but you aren’t sure what to do next. Here are some tips that may help.

Let Go of Pleasing the Narcissist 

While it’s easier said than done, you need to release your expectations of making the narcissist happy. It’s not your job to please them, and it never was.

As an adult, you are now responsible for your own well-being. You can’t live trying to appease a parent that will never truly be satisfied. 

Practice More Self-Compassion

You are worthy because you exist, and this worth isn’t tied to any of your accomplishments (or lack thereof). Self-compassion is an inside job, and it starts with validating yourself for being loved and important.

Consider adding more positive affirmations to your daily routine. Focus on spending time with people who make you feel good about yourself, rather than people who only expect certain outcomes from you.

Start Taking Risks 

Golden children are often indecisive and anxious because they’re so worried about making mistakes. To get comfortable with making mistakes, you need to practice exposing yourself to potential failure!

You can start small. For example, consider signing up for a class where you have no prior knowledge. Or, ask that friend you secretly like on a date- even if the fear of rejection looms over your head. Of course, everything won’t always go “perfectly,” but you will become more comfortable with learning and growing along the way!

Cut Contact 

Going non-contact with a narcissistic parent allows you to break away from their toxic patterns and attitude. You deserve to focus on your own needs and growth right now. By removing yourself from their chaos, you open the door to freedom. 


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3 comments
Jelena says November 4, 2021

Thank you for a very insightful article.
I’ve grown up with at least one narcissistic parent and have switched from the scapegoat to the golden child and am now the scapegoat again. I haven’t lived up to their expectations as an adult, so I barely deserve to exist.

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Brenda trexler says November 3, 2021

Thank you Kim. I have 2 family members against me brother and sister ,do you have anything on narcissist toxic family.

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Pasha says November 2, 2021

This is one of Kim’s most insightful articles. The shadow if these early dynamics stretches long. In my case it’s stretched across a lifetime. And I’m glad the essay remarks on possible assigned role switches in how the parents use these mantles as pincers of control. Because things are not so neatly binarised or stable: roles may switch or stay maddeningly blurry and ambivalent. It’s all a question of what the N in a given situation judges is ‘convenient’ and ‘expedient’ for their agendas and goals.

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