Why Do So Many Child Stars Develop PTSD?

For PTSD Awareness Month our experts explore the dangers of child-star syndrome and how you can overcome the mental health challenges it raises.

Former child stars are one of the most at-risk groups for developing mental health issues. The acting industry in particular can be stressful, unpredictable and lonely, which would take a toll on anyone’s mental health. But when you are young and your brain is still developing, it can be negatively moulded by these stressors.

Natalie Portman rose to fame when she was 13 years old in films such as Léon: The Professional (1994) and Beautiful Girls (1996). In a recent episode of Armchair Expert, Portman spoke out about how being sexualised at such a young age was traumatic.

Yet, child star syndrome remains a misunderstood and stigmatised phenomenon, seen as a result of an individual’s poor decision making, rather than a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For example, every few years, a mugshot or drunken photo of yet another 20-something former child star is plastered across the front pages of newspapers and websites. These images are usually accompanied by cruel words such as trainwreck and meltdown. Yet, more often than not, the substance abuse which often characterises these former stars’ breakdowns, is used to numb the symptoms of their mental health issues.

To help increase awareness and create more compassion, our team at Paracelsus Recovery has outlined why child star syndrome occurs and what you can do to overcome it.

What is Child Star Syndrome?

Child star syndrome is a term used to describe the troubled adult lives of former child stars. It is a complex and nuanced phenomenon, but key causes include:

Childhood Abuse

Children are more vulnerable to abuse than their adult counterparts — whether that’s emotional, sexual or financial. Unfortunately, young stars often face a combination of all three.

Children are more vulnerable to abuse than their adult counterparts — whether that’s emotional, sexual or financial. Unfortunately, young stars often face a combination of all three.

Former child actors such as Elijah Wood, Alex Winter, Todd Bridges and Corey Feldman have recently spoken out about the childhood sexual abuse epidemic in the entertainment industry. Child stars including Natalie Portman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Milla Jovovich have also opened up about how being overly-sexualized as children left emotional scars. Then, there are child actors such as Brooke Shields, Drew Barrymore and Macauley Culkin, whose parents famously exploited their work and, in some cases, stole their money.

When a child experiences a traumatic or abusive event, their brain releases ‘toxic stress’. Prolonged and frequent exposure to toxic stress levels can rewire parts of their brain, setting the stage for post-traumatic stress disorder later in life.

Former Disney Channel Icon, Alyson Stoner, described her on-set childhood as traumatic and harrowing in her essay ‘The Toddler to Trainwreck Industrial Complex.’ She is now an outspoken advocate for the health and wellbeing of child actors.

The ‘Lucky One’ Paradox

While children often want to perform, they can fail to grasp the magnitude of their decisions. Child stars work long, adult hours and spend vast amounts of time alone. It is not uncommon for them to experience developmental milestones, such as their first kiss, onscreen. When they grow up and begin to realise their sacrifices (or the abuse they endured), it can lead to feelings of anger or resentment.

“I would never wish my upbringing on anyone…but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.” ―Mary Kate Olsen

But, if they share those feelings, they are often branded as ungrateful or selfish, which in turn, can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. Complex emotions like these can negatively impact their self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Mary Kate Olsen once articulated this tension perfectly when she told Marie Claire, “I would never wish my upbringing on anyone…but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.”

Unpredictable Love

Human beings are tribal creatures, which makes us hardwired to seek out affection and belonging. These feelings are at their strongest during adolescence as we navigate our social value and find our tribe. But for child stars, who have grown accustomed to adoring fans and constant admiration, puberty can signal rejection and countless challenges.

As children, it can seem as though all attention is good attention. But as stars grow up and become more aware, the lack of privacy, stalkers and the sense of ‘all eyes on them at all times,’ can feel invasive and overwhelming. ―Mara Wilson

As Mara Wilson poignantly describes, “everyone feels disgusting and useless during puberty, but imagine that people you once relied on and trusted — as well as millions of people you’d never met who had previously liked you — told you ‘yeah it’s true. You are exactly as ugly and worthless as you feel’.” Further, as children, it can seem as though all attention is good attention. But as stars grow up and become more aware, the lack of privacy, stalkers and the sense of being watched all the time, can feel invasive and overwhelming.

As such, thousands of child stars experience abuse, loneliness, trust issues, and conflicting emotions before they are old enough to drive a car. There are countless other factors, such as the sense that you are not in control of your life or having families that depend financially on your work. These experiences are immensely stressful, and would unsettle anybody’s wellbeing.

With social-media apps like Tik-Tok creating a whole new type of child star, parents and caregivers must understand the mental-health risks — such as PTSD — which can come with growing up in the spotlight.

How Can You Overcome Child-Star Syndrome?

1. Focus on the Mind-Body Connection

Part and parcel of an actor’s job is to remain in touch with highly intense emotions. But, as children, we are still figuring out the boundary between fact and fiction, real or imaginary. As a result, spending years on end in auditions or movies that require you to become highly emotional can lead to nervous system dysregulation, which means you struggle to manage emotional responses. Mindfulness techniques, yoga and meditation can all help re-strengthen your mind-body relationship.

2. Separate Significance from Meaning

Try to find ways to use your platform in a meaningful manner, whatever that means for you.

If you are struggling to figure out what is meaningful for you, discover more about yourself by doing one new thing everyday for a month. Alternatively, go back to school, take a class, or try to forge alternative careers. In doing so, you make performance a choice, rather than something you’re doing because it’s all you’ve ever known.

Symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares, increasingly negative thoughts about yourself, feeling tense and avoiding people or places that remind you of the experience(s).

3. Seek Professional Help

Above all else, if you are struggling with any signs of PTSD, seek professional help as soon as possible. This is particularly important if you have experienced any kind of sexual or physical abuse. Symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares, increasingly negative thoughts about yourself, feeling tense and avoiding people or places that remind you of the experience(s). While challenging, help is available, and you can heal from these painful experiences.

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