(Image credit: Getty Images)
https://www.bbc.com/-By Ali Francis
Children of the famous aren’t the only ones living under the veil of successful parents. The experience is common and the effects ripple well into adulthood.
When Ryan decided to study teaching, he knew his father would be upset. The 25-year-old special-education administrator, who lives in Maryland, US, wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. His father, an immigrant and accomplished doctor, thought he should study medicine.
Ryan’s dad had worked hard to give his children opportunities in the US, and he wanted them to make the most of them. For a long time, Ryan assumed he would follow his father’s example. But when he started studying science in college, he realised medicine wasn’t a fit. Breaking the news to his father was stressful. “My dad was really disappointed,” says Ryan.
It’s often the offspring of the uber famous who come to mind when people think about what it means to live in a parent’s shadow. For instance, singer Willow Smith, the daughter of entertainers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, has described growing up with famous parents as “absolutely, excruciatingly terrible”. Colin Hanks, the actor son of Tom Hanks, said he struggled to be his own person. And writer Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of US politicians Bill and Hillary Clinton, has lamented being “made fun of so much as a child” on talk shows.
But beyond those in the bright lights, there’s a whole world of children like Ryan, whose non-famous parents also cast large shadows over their lives.
Of course, all kids are impacted by their parents. Children learn early on that they depend on their caregivers for survival, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist in Florida, US, host of The Verywell Mind Podcast and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. Because of that reliance, kids might suppress behaviours or personality traits to gain “more attention, affection and approval” from their parents. For children whose carers take up a lot of space of their own, the effects of these – spoken or unspoken – pressures can be exacerbated.
According to psychologists, feeling the weight of parental influence is a common experience for the kids of all sorts of people: the wealthy, the notable, the successful and even those with larger-than-life temperaments. And the effects can be prolific, say experts. For children of well-known parents, for instance, it can be hard to individuate themselves; in the presence of a high-achieving parent, a child might never feel good enough regardless of their expectations; and for kids of parents with towering personalities, developing a sense of self can be an uphill climb.
Growing up in the shadows
Therapists explain there’s a wide spectrum of ways children might grow up feeling overshadowed by their parents. Some of these kids feel like an extension of their carers, rather than separate individuals. As a result, many can struggle to “really find true agency, self-authority and wholeness”, says Alex Leff, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in New York City.
The kids of well-known or highly successful people may feel as if they’ll always be known as their parents’ child – rather than as themselves. “That might be because the parent draws more attention than they do, regardless of the situation,” says Morin.
This was the case for Rose, 29. Growing up in New Zealand, she often witnessed strangers fawn over her mum, who has a high-profile presence in the country’s culinary arts scene. “People would definitely come up to us in the supermarket or wherever,” says the brand strategist, who now lives in Lisbon, Portugal. And when strangers discovered who Rose was at high-school parties, “they would be like, ‘Oh my god, your mum!’.”
Rose knew she needed to carve out her own path. So, she left New Zealand soon after high school and travelled the world before going to college abroad in Australia and France. “I just had to go off and do my own thing for a while,” she says.
In other situations, children of ambitious parents may develop a fear of not living up to their expectations, says Leff, whether or not they were overtly told they needed to.
Ryan’s father, who was a doctor in his homeland, and had to struggle through exams in a foreign language to continue his vocation in America, made it clear he wanted his son to study medicine. Ryan says this communicated to him a specific set of commands about who he needed to be in order to deserve his father’s affection and respect. Under those circumstances, Ryan found it hard to make autonomous decisions, especially if they went against his successful father’s wishes. “He always took it personally if I didn’t meet his expectations, like I was a core reflection of him,” says Ryan.
He always took it personally if I didn’t meet his expectations, like I was a core reflection of him – Ryan
But parents needn’t be publicly recognisable or particularly esteemed for children to feel as if they’re living in the shadows. In some cases, parents with strong and complex personalities can threaten the organic emergence of their child’s own disposition. Outgoing or spontaneous people might unconsciously make their kid feel like they need to emulate a specific character trait, says Morin. For example, “a parent with a big personality might teach their child that they need to have a big personality, too”.
This chimes with the experiences of Ali, a 29-year-old food entrepreneur living in Philadelphia, US, who recalls feeling pressure to be fun and extroverted like her mum. Growing up, her mum was very social and constantly seeking adventure; she travelled frequently, went to concerts and often hosted friends. Ali, who was a shy kid, says it was hard to discover her true nature in the shadow of her mum’s. And because it seemed as if her mum was always “chasing the next shiny object”, Ali felt as if she needed to perform to gain her attention and approval.
‘I wanted everyone to know I wasn’t just handed this thing’
Kids who grow up in their parents’ shadows may face a wide range of challenges in adulthood, says Leff, who works with various children of the famous or socially influential. She’s noticed her own clients gravitate towards perfectionism, anxiety and high achievement to overcome a kind of looming dissatisfaction in their lives.
Ali, who runs a food start-up, is well aware of her ambitious streak. Her company’s products pepper the shelves of grocery stores around the US, and the business was recently featured on the popular American reality television show Shark Tank. On top of building a business, she’s an influencer in the food and wellness space. After spending years trying to hold her mother’s attention, Ali suspects that “the status-quo career never felt exciting enough”.
Similarly, the children of accomplished parents might also feel pressured to work extra hard to earn their successes, says Morin. This is especially true for those with renowned or particularly established parents in the same field.
This resonates with Rose. She always wanted to be a cook, but initially refused to collaborate with her food-industry mother, instead choosing to work solo to establish her own success first. Eventually, Rose felt she had been squandering an opportunity, and the pair worked together on a project in 2018. Still, Rose pushed herself to be the first person at work, and handled most of the logistics. “I went 400% because I wanted everyone on the team to know that I wasn’t just handed this thing,” she says. “I think I also needed to prove that to myself.”
Children who grow up in the shadows of overbearing parents may later try to mimic their carer’s success to gain approval. A 2021 survey by global recruitment platform Joblist showed that 65% of respondents ended up in the career or industry they felt their parents wanted for them. Whether implicit or explicit, says Leff, that kind of parental pressure “can lead to challenges in an adult child really choosing from their core what they like or want”. This isn’t just in terms of a career path, but also in “relationships and appearance”, too.
Others react in diametrically opposite ways, adds Leff, rebelling against their parents’ wishes entirely. She’s noticed a “tendency to really reject the model of success displayed”, perhaps out of resentment or as another means to develop “an identity separate from their famous or successful parent”.
In Ryan’s case, he broke from his father’s expectations gradually. He decided to study teaching instead of medicine after high school, and then entered a relationship his family deemed inappropriate. Bit by bit, he came to terms with his upbringing. “I [realised] I didn’t want to be anything like my father,” says Ryan. Still, he admits that part of him yearns for his father’s admiration. “I’m really trying hard not to let that influence my decisions,” he says, particularly around future career moves.
The upsides of strong role models
Growing up with parents who loom large might have the potential to raise issues later in life – but the experience can also be beneficial. It can model inspiring ways to live, beget rare career opportunities and help a child define their own values.
Having the ability to learn from a successful parent is helpful for anyone, says Leff. And watching parents experience career wins helps some kids develop self-confidence, adds Morin.
This can also come with some tangible perks. For example, being born wealthy – like kids of the famous and highly accomplished often are – makes a child in the US more likely to succeed in adulthood than academic performance, according to a 2019 report from Georgetown University. Daughters with working mothers are also more likely to hold supervisory roles themselves, one 2015 Harvard Business School study found. And, of course, for centuries, children born to successful parents have been bolstered by them – in some cases inheriting their empires, and in others, gaining industry connections. That’s as true today as it ever was.
My mum has so much knowledge and so many skills that I don’t have, and that just comes with a lifelong career – Rose
Rose now sees how much of a privilege it was to work alongside her mother. “My mum has so much knowledge and so many skills that I don’t have, and that just comes with a lifelong career,” she says. It also opened doors. “You’d be naive to think otherwise,” Rose says.
For other adult children, discovering aspects of a parent’s life that seem undesirable can also be helpful in defining their own values, says Morin. After watching her mother in the limelight, Rose has chosen to be a very private person; fame is not something she wants for herself.
And Ryan, who experienced his father’s strong opinions first-hand, is careful not to impose his views on others. “I try to be very non-judgemental of the people I love,” he says.
‘We’re just in a really loving place now’
For many, a parent’s imprint can stay with them for life. Regardless of the life choices they make, it can be difficult to shake. But for others, Leff says it is possible to emerge from a parental shadow. This can take work on the part of the child, however: they might need to create space for their own development away from their parent or find the courage to share and process their feelings directly.
With the help of a therapist, Ali was able to communicate her childhood experiences to her mother without blame. “It was a really good conversation, because we were both very open about everything,” she says. Now, Ali fully embraces her mum’s vivacious spirit. It reminds her to prioritise more fun and play in her own life – especially while building a business.
From Portugal, Rose and her New Zealand-based mum talk often about the value each one brings to a project. They make sure to affirm each other as individuals. “I’m feeling pretty confident in my skill set,” says Rose. “We’re just in a really loving place now.”
For Ryan, however, the situation is still tense. He feels as if his father continues to disapprove of his career and his relationship, if not as overtly. Limiting the time he spends with him was the best way for Ryan to avoid his father’s overbearance. “It’s a bit awkward,” he says. “But I think it’s healthier now.”
Ryan, Rose and Ali’s surnames are being withheld to protect the privacy of their families