"Being an eldest daughter is like an unpaid internship for the rest of your life." This tweet recently stopped me in my tracks, which rarely happens (with the exception of red carpet footage of Paul Mescal speaking Gaelic). It received thousands of likes, with many flocking to the comments section in unanimous agreement. One Twitter user even replied: "But at least interns get credit." I felt vindicated.
Growing up as the oldest daughter in my family, I always noticed that my parents tended to be stricter with me, that a lot of the housework fell to me and that I was regularly (and still am) expected to mediate in arguments between family members. I was also told to get a part-time job as soon as I turned 16, whereas my brother was given the freedom to focus on his studies. At 11, I witnessed the ugliness of divorce firsthand and was often my mum’s emotional support. With her working full-time as a single mother to provide for us, sometimes the task of cleaning, cooking and looking after my brother – who is three years younger – went to me. Given the chance, I would do it again, but it hasn’t curbed the feelings of resentment that creep in from time to time. As it turns out, I’m not alone.
All over the internet, creators have been sharing their grievances about how being the oldest daughter is the biggest scam of all, criticising the invisible labour you undertake when you are not only the first-born but also a woman. One TikTok shows a creator with a weary expression on her face and the caption: "POV: you’re the eldest daughter and you just mediated an argument between your sister, your mom, and your dad." In another video, a creator says: "So we’ve already accepted that oldest daughters are the unappreciated backbone of the family?" Others talk about sacrifices made along the way, such as acting as second parents to their siblings, lamenting how they "[were] literally the trial run for [their] parents" or commenting "we should start a support group". The hashtag #EldestDaughterSyndrome – where TikTok users unpack supposedly common personality traits that affect first-born daughters, such as perfectionism, people-pleasing, guilt complexes, control issues and jealousy – has amassed 7.8 million views.
"Until fairly recently, the importance of siblings in terms of individual children’s psychological development and birth order was neglected by researchers, despite the fact that in both the UK and the US, around 80% of children still grow up with at least one brother or sister," says Louise Tyler, a UK-based, BACP-accredited counsellor. "In fact, these things are now seen to be significant. Personality is shaped by a mixture of genetics, upbringing, societal expectations, environment, life experiences and health. Even the upbringing aspect is relevant, as each child will be born and raised in a specific set of circumstances at any given time in the life of the family."
In the early 1900s, Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler (who was the second of seven children) coined birth order theory, proposing that the order in which children are born has a profound impact on their individual personalities. Adler proposed that first-borns tend to be neurotic, conservative and dutiful; middle children are competitive, rebellious and people-pleasers; while youngest siblings tend to be creative, attention-seeking and independent. Since then, many studies claim to have debunked Adler’s theory, suggesting that while there might not be a concrete, proven link between your birth order and how you turn out, it is how parents and children react to birth order that has an impact.
This 'how' covers what parents might subconsciously expect (or not expect) from you as a result of birth order or unintentional gender bias. Tyler supposes it’s these expectations that create phenomena such as eldest daughter syndrome. On TikTok, many eldest daughters describe feeling like they have had to grow up more quickly or even forfeit their childhood to substitute for their parents. "This is called parentification and girls can be more likely (although it’s not always the case) to take on this role," says Tyler. "This could be due to gender stereotyping that can end up having a self-fulfilling prophecy – a daughter may early on be labelled as a 'good girl', 'no trouble', 'a big help'. As a child receives these messages, they can feel pressured to keep up these behaviours even when they don’t want to. This can lead to them learning to suppress their own needs and emotions later on. Boys are more likely to be labelled 'the cheeky one', 'a handful' or 'needs to get outside to run around'."
Parentification, Tyler adds, is more likely to happen in families where there is difficulty or dysfunction. "Offspring can end up taking on some of the roles, worries and responsibilities of the parents," she says. "Whereas things like mental health difficulties, addiction issues and generational trauma are much more out in the open now, even a decade ago these things were kept behind closed doors and often children were left to pick up the pieces, keeping things secret behind a wall of shame so as to make things appear 'normal'."
A video unpacking eldest daughter syndrome from New York-based TikTok creator Kennedy, 19, has 55.5k views and over 5k comments. Kennedy tells Refinery29 that being a first-born daughter has definitely shaped her personality. "I didn’t even notice how different and intense my mom’s parenting originally was until my younger siblings were born," she says. "I have a 10-year-old sister and a soon-to-be 2-year-old brother, and while my mom definitely loves us all equally and we are her life, she parents them much more gently than she did me. Granted, our living situations are very different than when it was just the two of us now that she’s married and we live much more comfortably. But as I got older, my mom realised a lot of her parenting techniques were abusive (again, generational trauma) and she unlearned a lot of them once my sister was born."
There is no denying the additional layers that exist when taking into consideration factors like social and economic inequalities, religion, cultural background and race. In an emotional TikTok, which has had over 750k views, 21-year-old art student Aneira unpacks her frustration at being the eldest daughter. "Almost everyone in my Southeast Asian family relies on me," she tells Refinery29. "In my culture, family always should be prioritised and the older you get, the more responsibility you have. Being the first daughter and first granddaughter of the family, I was taught that I have to take care of everyone around me. I was also taught that everyone looks up to me, and that I have to be perfect because I’m a role model in the family. In my experience, it’s rather lonely and hard, especially [on] my mental health. It’s like everyone can make mistakes except me."
Joyce, 25, is an LA-based TikTok creator who has gone viral for videos such as "eldest daughter of immigrant parents check in", "me entering my disappointment child era" and "my younger siblings don’t share the same experience as me". In her videos, she addresses how therapy has helped her get to the root of her "low self-esteem", "anxiety" and "sensitive people-pleasing". She tells Refinery29: "I have two younger siblings, the youngest one and I being almost a decade apart. There are generational differences as well as a completely different set of experiences with each of our parents. I struggled a lot with jealousy. I felt that it was almost unfair that as kids they were able to get away with more things and they got praised for little things that were simply expected from me. I think it's left a lasting effect on my self-confidence and sense of adequacy, but it's something I'm working on and I don't blame my siblings."
Of course, there are exceptions. None of this is to say that all first-born daughters have unresolved trauma from their upbringing, or that youngest or middle siblings never do. Every childhood has its own set of challenges and it would be limiting and altogether untrue to suggest otherwise. But while 'eldest daughter syndrome' may be an internet-coined non-medical term, there’s no ignoring the existence of a large community of first-born women who feel the same way.
"The internet and platforms such as TikTok have reduced this loneliness for many," says Yasin, the cofounder of Home Girls Unite, a London-based nonprofit organisation, international community and "support group for eldest daughters by eldest daughters". "[They are] spaces where eldest daughters can speak about their experiences without any worry that their families will ever see them. Comment sections may have unintentionally become a support system between eldest daughters through sharing and supporting one another."
Started back in 2018 by best friends Hanna, 25, and Yasin, 26, Home Girls Unite has over 11.7k followers on Twitter and provides mental health support services with in-house therapists, including one-to-one and group therapy sessions. Even the in-house therapists are eldest daughters.
"Feeling validated is important because many of us have grown up in homes where our feelings were never validated," says Yasin. "This is especially true for eldest daughters from immigrant homes because some parents quickly dismiss their feelings and may often accuse their daughters of being 'westernised'."
It is also important to encourage balanced conversations that don’t veer too severely towards blaming parents or siblings without trying to understand why something might be the way it is. "Many immigrant parents are keen to preserve the cultural values they had known in their country of origin, meaning that when they migrate, they are likely to continue upholding those cultural values and norms in many aspects of their lives, including in the household and their parenting styles," says Yasin. "This parenting is often only preserved for the daughters due to the patriarchal nature of many immigrant households and communities."
Ultimately, Yasin tells Refinery29, the underlying aim of Home Girls Unite is to make young women feel understood and seen. She says: "Having a space where you can be heard, free of judgement, and receive culturally appropriate support means that eldest daughters can be heard, supported and made to feel validated about their experiences."
Whether or not you’re from an immigrant background, and regardless of your birth order, if you have experienced any of the behaviours described in this piece, Home Girls Unite suggests a few ways you can start to heal:
Remember that it's okay to start over
Deciding to live life for yourself can come with a lot of guilt but remember you deserve good things, just like other people in your life.
Try and unlearn people-pleasing
People are very rarely pleased. Learn to say no.
Seek professional support
Finding a therapist or psychologist may be a good starting point for your healing journey.
Join Home Girls Unite
It will help you understand your eldest daughter role better, giving you the tools to start working through the stresses that come with the role.