I’m not sure if dependable kid syndrome is a term you’ll find elsewhere, or if it’s just something I’ve made up to describe my own experiences. I’d say it’s likely a byproduct of a term you probably have heard before, which is gifted kid syndrome. Indeed, I think they might be two sides of the same coin.
Gifted kid syndrome is something that happens to children who are identified at a young age as being gifted or high-achieving. Those children grew up feeling the heavy weight of expectation on their shoulders. As adults, they often find themselves burnt out, overwhelmed, and feeling like failures, even though they have out-achieved most of their peers. I think dependable kid syndrome is the result of gifted kids being raised around one or more siblings who are high needs or who need a more hands-on approach than they do.
I have a daughter and a son. My son has ADHD and some emotional regulation issues. He is a bright, brilliant, kind, and empathetic kid who is truly going places! But, at his tender age, he requires a lot of hand-holding. My daughter, on the other hand, is neurotypical like me. She is dependable, self-reliant, and clever. At five years old, she can already read and do complex math (for a kindergartener, that is). She is destined for great things, and will need a lot less help from us to get there than my son.
Sometimes, I think I take that for granted. She is so polite, so courteous, so unassuming. She doesn’t seem to need a lot, and occasionally, I assume she doesn’t. I forget that she is five and has a rich emotional world. I forget that she, like me, is very good at convincing herself that other people’s needs are more important than her own and, as a result, pushing her needs aside.
This morning in our house was a perfect example of how dependable kid syndrome can become a major problem right underneath your nose.
Earlier this week, my son was playing a little too tough and injured his private parts. It was a big deal. One of those, “is this going to turn into an ER trip” kind of things. Thankfully, things are healing nicely and he is doing okay. But, he’s also had to stay home from school all week, as his injury requires quite a lot of bandaging, re-bandaging, ointment application, and so on. Every morning, my husband has dutifully attended to these needs while I’ve prepared our daughter for school. This morning, out of nowhere, my daughter became really irritable and mopey. I thought maybe she just hadn’t fully woken up yet, so I carried on with our morning routine and waited for her to pep back up.
But she didn’t do that. Instead, her somber mood grew into a tearful and heartbreaking fit. She was sobbing and yelling at me—blaming me for things I didn’t even know I’d done, things that were entirely out of my control. She was so angry at me that, to be honest, I got a little triggered. As a former dependable kid myself, I am used to everyone’s expectations of me being a little too high, and being guilt-tripped or shamed when I haven’t met those unrealistic expectations. It pushed me back into some of my own pain to have my daughter lob guilt at me for things I hadn’t even done (e.g., it was my fault that they didn’t get cotton candy in her classroom yesterday).
Things weren’t adding up. I knew this was one of those moments where I needed to put my feelings aside and help her get to the real problem here. I’ve been in enough therapy to know that when someone is making irrational arguments like that, there is a deeper need that is going un-expressed. You just have to break through the surface to find it.
So, I asked her if she could tell me what’s really going on here. She struggled with finding her words, but with some compassion and gentle guidance, I was able to help her articulate it. The deeper need, the one that was going unexpressed (and that, I realized, was tinged in shame) was that she felt left out. It troubled her that her brother was getting so much attention, while she felt like she was being left to her own devices.
Of course, this isn’t true. My daughter has had plenty of special moments with her dad and me this week. I went to her school yesterday to have lunch with her. Her dad has been doing arts and crafts with her. This afternoon, she and I are going on a special date day together. But despite those things, there is no doubt that she has felt less attended to this week while we have had to give so much care to her brother. There has been a lot of, “just a second, sweetheart, I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done with your brother’s bandages” and things of that nature. There has been a lot of her dad and I subconsciously applying the dependable kid syndrome to her. She’s so dependable. She’s so self-sufficient. She can be patient while we take care of this.
This part of parenting is tough. When you have one kid with a very obvious physical need—one that is right in front of your face, it’s so easy to prioritize that problem. And, in cases like my son’s this week, you often have to. But I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t allowed myself to overlook my daughter’s invisible, internal need that isn’t in plain sight like my son’s.
Judging from my daughter’s big feelings today, this isn’t the first time this has happened. More than likely, this has happened many times before, and today was just the tipping point. How many times did she quietly put her feelings aside while my husband and I tended to my son’s outbursts, his speech therapy, his meetings with the school psychologist, his need for emotional co-regulation. How many times did we subconsciously file that under that’s just our daughter—so dependable. So strong.
It’s something I have to challenge myself to work on. My daughter does not deserve to grow up always having to be self-reliant just because she can be. She deserves not to have to be tough. She deserves for her quiet needs to be just as loud to us as her brother’s. She deserves not to be the “dependable daughter” all the time. I want to figure out how to cultivate her dependable nature into resilience and self-determination without making her feel like the world is on her shoulders. I need her to know how to be strong and soft. How to be self-reliant, and how to trust other people enough to rely on them, too.
I’ve struggled with that my whole life. I’ve spent the last two decades cementing my belief that people (other than my family) can fundamentally not be counted on and that I am better off taking care of my needs myself. That belief has led to a lot more loneliness than was necessary. It’s also prevented me from experiencing fully the gift of other people helping me to carry my burdens. For so long, I carried them alone. And now, at almost 40, I am learning for the first time how to truly rely on others.
I can’t let my daughter reach my age before she starts the careful work of learning that lesson. I need to teach her now. So, although I don’t have all the answers just yet, my journey from here on is to learn how to teach my dependable daughter how to depend.
And that starts with me showing her that I am dependable. That I see her needs. That I don’t rely on her toughness as a crutch. That I pour into her even when she seems like she doesn’t need it.
Because she does need it. We all do.
Especially our dependable daughters.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.