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28th Feb 2024

What is eldest daughter syndrome and why is TikTok talking about it?

Anna Martin

If you’ve been anywhere near TikTok the chances are you’ve heard of eldest daughter syndrome

It usually starts with some joke about being the eldest daughter or the eldest sister but behind the laughs, there’s a deeper meaning.

Many people have spoken about the increased levels of responsibility and how they felt like they had to take on a parenting role despite only being young themselves.

Though not an official psychiatric diagnosis, these feelings fall under the eldest daughter syndrome label.

Yet the question remains what is it and what impact is it having on our daughters?

What is eldest daughter syndrome?

@katimorton The 8 signs you have eldest daughter syndrome… #eldestdaughter #siblings #siblingcheck ♬ original sound – Kati Morton, LMFT

As we said, though it’s not a medically recognised condition, with over 229 million views of the hashtag on TikTok, it’s clear there is some truth to it.

Despite women’s rise in education and employment, the oldest girl in the family still seems to take on a majority of the housework when compared to her siblings.

Mirroring the gender divide among adults, girls aged between five and 14 years old spend 40% more time on domestic work than boys.

According to many on TikTok, the syndrome can steal an eldest daughter’s childhood as they are rushed into assuming a disproportionate amount of adult responsibilities – also known as parentification.

Why does it happen?

There are many theories as to why eldest daughter syndrome occurs but often it’s a combination of three main behavioural theories.

First, is the role modelling theory, which suggests that daughters learn how to be women by watching what their mothers do.

Second, the sex-typing theory proposes that parents often assign different, gendered tasks to girls and boys. Think girls cooking dinner and cutting the lawn for boys.

Even when parents consciously strive to instil gender equality in their children, sex-typing can still occur as eldest daughters unconsciously join their mothers in gendered activities.

The third, the labour substitution theory suggests that when working mothers have limited time available for domestic work, eldest daughters often act as a secondary version of them, taking up the work that they can’t do.

As a result, they end up spending more time on care provision and housework.

Credit: Getty

What can be done to prevent it?

The fix for this situation is as obvious as it is complicated to implicate.

Families need to recognise the burden that they may have placed on their oldest girls and work to redistribute tasks and chores in an equal manner.

It sounds simple on paper but it involves the cooperation of all family members to work.

On top of this, it means learning to undo the centuries worth of gender stereotypes we have unconsciously made part of everyday life.

Eldest daughter syndrome isn’t just a name for some complex feelings girls have, it’s the result of years of gender inequality but we can change that.