Relationships

The Double-Edged Sword Of Being The Oldest Daughter

By Meghan Dillon··  6 min read
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I’ve always been told that I fit the archetype of the eldest daughter perfectly, which makes sense because I am one.

I’m the oldest of three girls (my middle sister is two years younger than me and my youngest sister is five years younger than me), and I think it’s safe to say that I fit the stereotype very well.

Strong Female Leaders

Oldest daughters are often stereotyped as being strong leaders, perfectionists, responsible, and competitive. 

Lisette Schuitemaker and Wies Enthoven, authors of The Eldest Daughter Effect, discuss how “Eldest daughters are responsible, dutiful, thoughtful, expeditious and caring. Firstborns are more intelligent than their siblings, more proficient verbally, and more motivated to perform. Yet at the same time, they seriously doubt that they are good enough. Being an eldest daughter can have certain advantages, but the overbearing sense of responsibility often gets in the way. Parents may worry about their ‘difficult’ eldest girl who wants to be perfect in everything she does whilst her siblings may not always understand her.” 

Eldest daughters are responsible, dutiful, thoughtful, expeditious, and caring. 

When it comes to the positive traits, oldest daughters are more likely to be leaders, have a strong work ethic, and are more likely to be successful in academics and in their careers. According to a study in Scientific American, eldest daughters are the most likely to succeed out of any sibling type, and they’re "16% more likely to excel academically than younger siblings." Oldest girls are even more likely to attend college than oldest boys by 4%. 

Women like Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, Queen Elizabeth II, and former German chancellor Angela Merkel prove that these stereotypical traits often ring true. 

Being an overachiever and strong leader is thought to result from the pressure to set a good example for their siblings and from parents who want their firstborn child to succeed. Personally, I know my drive to be an overachiever, responsible, loyal, caring, and a strong leader can sometimes cause me anxiety, but they're also what makes me a good sister, daughter, and friend.

Eldest Daughter Syndrome

Due to the pressure to succeed and set a good example for younger siblings, eldest daughters are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. They are also more likely to want to seek approval from others, have more jealous and controlling personalities, have strong guilt complexes, and have a strong fear of rejection. 

I’ve always been anxious and craved the approval of others (something I’ve had to work hard in with a career in media because *cough* internet trolls), have struggled with depression, and have a strong guilt complex. I’ve developed numerous coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression and have learned to work through feelings of guilt and being a people-pleaser. I’ve struggled less with feelings of jealousy and control (side note: my sisters are probably cackling), but I'm the first to admit that I’m not perfect.

Oldest children have the unique situation of having both parents’ attention all to themselves, and that actually plays a role in the pressure and anxiety they feel. The anxiety eldest daughters suffer from is often attributed to having anxious parents. Carrie Krawiec, LMFT, writes, "First time parents are anxious about safety because everything as it relates to this baby feels fragile. [They] feel pressure to meet demands of developmental milestones and transfer that anxiety to their kids.”

That anxiety taints the drive to succeed with stress and guilt. For me personally, the toughest thing about being the eldest daughter is the guilt complex. While I was growing up, I was afraid that every mistake I’d make would set a bad example for my sisters. It took me a while to learn that making mistakes was a part of the human experience and that I wasn’t a bad person for making them.

encanto luisa pressure no mistakes

I was the “good girl” because I wanted to live up to my parents’ expectations and set a good example. I often went out of my way to stay out of trouble and avoided going out drinking while I was in high school. Though I started drinking when I went off to college, I was always cautious. The thought of disappointing my parents was real, but I quickly learned how to balance being responsible and having fun.

Looking back, being the eldest daughter and the first to go off to college was extremely stressful. I wanted to succeed, but I didn’t have an older sibling to show me the way. Though I was lucky to have some older cousins and friends to help me with the transition, I had to learn a lot by myself and from my own mistakes.

Is Suffering from Oldest Girl Syndrome Inevitable?

Just like with the middle child and the youngest child, being the oldest has its pros and its cons, but there are steps parents can take to make sure they don’t overwhelm their eldest daughter. 

Experts encourage parents to help their eldest feel included when siblings are born (which is where the jealousy stereotype comes from) by spending quality time with them. Parents are also encouraged to teach the differences between being a leader and being controlling to their eldest children. Most importantly, parents are encouraged to let their eldest daughters know they’re loved unconditionally. Eldest daughters tend to be overachievers and people-pleasers, which can often lead them to feel worthless if they fall short of their goals.

Parents are encouraged to let their eldest daughters know they’re loved unconditionally. 

I’ve always had a good relationship with both of my parents, and they had (and still have) a unique ability to let me know that they love me no matter what, will always support me, and will continuously encourage me to strive to be a better person.

That being said, I did struggle with neither of them understanding what it was like to be the eldest child. My mom is the youngest of five and my dad is the youngest of six, so I often felt alone in the many emotions that came with being the eldest daughter. I’m very lucky to come from a large extended family and have many cousins that have felt like older-sibling figures to me, and friends that are fellow eldest daughters who understood what I was going through.

Closing Thoughts

With the pressure to succeed and set a good example, being the eldest daughter can be tough. Luckily, this helps many eldest daughters also learn how to be strong leaders and strive for success. 

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