‘I think every child star suffers through this period because you’re not the cute and charming child that you were. You start to grow, and they want to keep you little forever.’
-Michael Jackson on the perils of getting older.
‘I’m not after fame and success and fortune and power. It’s mostly that I want to have a good job and have good friends; that’s the good stuff in life.’
– Drew Barrymore
‘What would I say to parents of children in the industry? My only advice, honestly, is to get these kids out of Hollywood and let them lead normal lives.’
More and more young people are being lured into developing an insatiable lust for fame. Whilst fame can bring enormous rewards, it is likely that just about every famous person would acknowledge that there is also a downside. To some, of course, the negative side of fame is more damaging than to others. However, young people are likely to be especially vulnerable to this negative side, and, in this post, I want to explore the adverse effects the experience of early fame can have on child stars.
Of course, some child stars cope with their fame very well and can enjoy it. An example of someone who fitted this category is Leonardo DiCaprio (for those who have not seen films in which he starred as a child, I recommend the films ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and ‘This Boy’s Life’ –as a bonus this movie also stars Robert Deniro)’) who made an extraordinarily successful transition into adult stardom.
Stars who did not cope so well with early fame include Michael Jackson (indeed, he attributed many of his adult difficulties to the effect of his childhood). In interviews, Jackson described his childhood as being lonely and unhappy. it has also been alleged that his father used, sometimes, to beat him if he made mistakes during the arduous rehearsals he was forced to undertake. He also stated that he would often see happy children playing together through the window of his rehearsal room and cry because he could not join them and felt left out. As an adult, he felt his childhood had, in a very real sense, been stolen from him. In response to this, he tried to relive his childhood as an adult which is, of course, extremely well documented.
There is also the case of McCaulay Culkin. He attributes the fact that he turned to drink and drugs, at least in part, to the enormous pressure he was under as the world’s most famous child. Also, as soon as he was able, he cut off all contact and communication with his father.
Another case is that of Corey Feldman. He talks about his abusive childhood in his book entitled Coreyography which, he informs us, included being exploited as the family’s main source of income and having restrictions placed upon him to ensure he was able to continue to provide such income. In his book, he also describes how his mother criticized him for being ‘overweight’ and insisted he take medication to control it; furthermore, he describes how his mother would impose cruel punishments upon him in order to control him, including physical, verbal abuse and death threats. Feldman eventually developed a drug dependency.
The main factors include :
– the degree to which the child is being manipulated for financial gain
– the degree of unwanted pressure exerted by so-called ‘pushy parents’
– the age at which the child has to contend with the pressures of fame
– the level of emotional support the child receives from parents, friends, management etc
– the length of time spent in the limelight, and, if relevant, how this ends (e.g. by choice or due to no longer being offered work)
– the environment in which the child works (e.g. the influence of older stars)
– the degree to which the child feels able to exercise choice in relation to whether s/he works
– the degree to which parents want their child to be famous in order to derive a vicarious experience of fame (i.e. to live out their own unfulfilled dreams through their child).
– the degree to which they are exposed to ‘showbiz style’ drink and drug-taking
– the degree to which they are isolated from ‘normal’ society
On top of the above, child stars will also need to cope with jealousy (not only from their peers and siblings, but by some adults too (eg relatively unsuccessful older actors, and, even, in some cases, from their own parents), intense public scrutiny, loss of privacy, unwanted attention (e.g. by obsessed fans), the pressure to maintain an image which may well be at odds with their true personality, fear of work drying up (e.g. being a ‘has been’ at 17 years of age with the best part of his/her career over), fear of re-adjustment to non-stardom (if it happens), becoming overly self-important and arrogant. Finally, too, it is worth remembering the phrase: ‘It’s lonely at the top.’
Today’s young people may be especially at risk of the adverse effects of childhood fame given that they can be suddenly thrust into the spotlight through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok with unpredictable effects and being ‘reported on’ in real-time.
SYMPTOMS OF STRESS YOUNG PEOPLE MAY EXHIBIT IN RESPONSE TO THE PRESSURES OF EARLY FAME
For those 12 years of age and younger, stress symptoms might include :
– REGRESSION: i.e. reverting to behavior more commonly displayed by younger children
– DEPRESSION / EXCESSIVE CRYING
– ANXIETY ATTACKS / ‘CLINGING BEHAVIOR’
For those in their teens :
– POOR ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE
– DRUG AND ALCOHOL ABUSE
– EATING DISORDERS (a well-known example of a child star from the UK who later developed an eating disorder – in this case, anorexia – is Lena Zavaroni, who tragically died from the condition).
THE PROBLEM OF ACHIEVING ICONIC STATUS :
It has been suggested that another problem that may arise from being a child star is that the public has a tendency to psychologically project their ideas of what is good, beautiful, and innocent onto the famous child so that the child becomes a symbol, or icon, representing these qualities. In other words, the child is idealized and romanticized and placed on a pedestal – an image that is clearly impossible to live up to.
The highly successful child star is likely to become his/her family’s chief breadwinner, earning in a year, possibly, more than his/her parents, combined, will earn in a lifetime. In terms of who is the family financial provider, then, there is a reversal of ordinary roles. It is possible that unscrupulous parents will exploit this, pushing the child to do work that s/he does not want to do (e.g. the case of Michael Jackson, referred to briefly above).
Also, if the young star is a teenager with access to his/her money and becomes involved with drugs, s/he is more likely to take them in very large quantities as s/he can afford to do so.
‘I JUST WANT TO BE NORMAL!’
This is a common refrain of children, who, universally, want to fit in with their peers. The child star, however, is set apart, by definition of being famous, which deprives him/her of a fundamental psychological need.
THE FOUR STAGES OF FAME
A study was undertaken by Rockwell and Giles (2009) which involved the researchers interviewing well-known celebrities (although the study does not include details of who these celebrities were in order to preserve their privacy in relation to the information they provided).
Rockwell and Giles found that, in general, people who have just become famous go through FOUR STAGES; these are as follows :
- An initial ‘love/hate’ relationship with fame.
- An addiction to fame.
- Acceptance of fame.
- Adaptation to living with fame.
Let’s look at these four stages in turn :
1. An initial ‘love/hate’ relationship with fame :
According to Rockwell’s and Gile’s findings, this initial stage is exciting and can provide a great boost to one’s ego and self-esteem, though the undesirable side of fame also quickly becomes apparent (e.g. unwanted intrusions into one’s personal life by the press and general public/fans).
2. Addiction to fame:
Addiction to fame, and the ‘buzz’ it provides, becomes addictive for many people (one individual the researchers interviewed described the addiction to fame as being more potent than addiction to any drug he or she (participants in the research study were given anonymity) had ever taken.
However, such addiction stores up potential problems for the future, as there might be an unpleasant ‘withdrawal phase’ if the person’s level of fame steeply declines. (For example, some U.K footballers seem to have replaced their addiction to fame with an addiction to alcohol once their careers have ended – such examples have already been well documented by the U.K. media. And, of course, more relevant to this specific article, many child stars, too, appear to have found the end of their acting/music etc. careers difficult to cope with if they have not managed to make the transition to a successful, adult, acting career – again, such cases have been well documented.)
3. Acceptance of fame:
The researchers propose that the third stage is acceptance of fame (both in terms of its good and bad aspects) and a realization that the ‘world of fame’ is essentially unreal (e.g. their fans don’t know the ‘real’ them and judge them only by their public image (which is, of course, often meticulously controlled by their management and PR people) and that what the public project on to them (both good and bad) in no way wholly defines them as a person.
Why Do Some Seem To Have A Need For Fame?
Our sense of self and true identity is most heavily influenced, according to modern psychodynamic theory, by the quality of our relationship with our primary carer (most frequently the mother) during our first year of life.
Those of us who experienced a poor quality of care during this critical developmental period, such as not having been treated with sensitivity or empathy, not having had our fundamental emotional needs met, or because we were abused or otherwise neglected, are at the greatest risk of developing a poor sense of self-identity in adulthood (i. e. a feeling of not knowing, or being uncertain about, ‘who we really are’).
Fame As A Coping Strategy:
Some people attempt to deal with their weak sense of identity by excessive use of drink and drugs, not infrequently leading to addiction.
However, others, to compensate for their feelings of lack of identity, may become addicted to the feelings, emotions, and sensations that being famous can induce.
For example, being recognized in the street (although in many ways annoying, or even distressing) can provide an ephemeral sense of identity and temporarily heighten one’s feelings of self-esteem and personal worth.
Similarly, being on stage in front of enraptured, adoring, possibly hysterical fans floods the celebrity’s brain with chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine, providing an almost transcendental ‘buzz’ that no drug, it is said, can accurately recreate.
But Who Am I?
However, the problem is that part of being famous frequently involves adopting a persona, or, to use a more clinical expression, the false self.
Because it is the false self that is recognized by fans, rather than the real self, identity confusion is intensified; the real self is neglected and remains unknown, increasing feelings of isolation and loneliness. The famous person may then become even more out of touch, or dissociated from, who s/he ‘really is’.
Indeed, famous people frequently lament the fact that their fans think they know them but, in reality, have no idea of what they’re really like. In fact, the persona and ‘true self’ may be radically different – the former confidant, even swaggering, and the latter, the real self, deeply insecure and emotionally fragile.
Effects On Relationships:
The false self/persona may become so dominant (in effect, the famous person may take to ‘hiding behind’ it) that people who knew the famous person before his/her success may no longer ‘recognize’ him/her and become alienated. This can then lead to the breakdown of such relationships, leaving the famous person feeling more vulnerable than ever and more reliant still on unhealthy relationships with ‘hangers-on’ who serve only to encourage the development of the false self.
Pushy Parents And Achievement By Proxy Disorder
It is well established that, occasionally, parents may exploit the talents of their children to benefit themselves. Benefits may include social recognition and financial gain. Such parents may, too, have an emotional need to live their lives vicariously through their child.
This phenomenon is common enough to have been given a name: Achievement By Proxy Disorder (ABPD).
The disorder can develop over time and, as such, has been broken down into three stages; these are :
STAGE 1: RISKY SACRIFICE
STAGE 2 : OBJECTIFICATION
STAGE 3: POTENTIAL ABUSE
Let’s look at these three stages in turn :
STAGE 1: RISKY SACRIFICE – In this stage, the parent/s begin to fail to distinguish between their own needs for recognition and high achievement from those of their child so project these needs onto him/her.
These needs may be so powerful that the parent/s start to invest heavily (in terms of time and/or money) in developing the child’s particular talent (eg acting, sport, music). This has been termed ‘risky sacrifice’ as, at this stage, whether or not the child will succeed is still uncertain.
However, fearing that their investment may be ‘wasted’ (i.e. the child never meets the exactingly high standards the parents have set) they may start to exert increasing pressure on the child to succeed. Manipulation of the child may occur, for example, by parents saying to him/her things such as: ‘Look at all the time, money and energy we’re putting into this – why don’t you try harder? You’re letting us all down.’
STAGE 2: OBJECTIFICATION – An apt analogy here might be to say that the parents start to treat the child in a similar way to how an owner may treat a potentially high performing (and high earning) racehorse. The parent/s begin to view the child as a way of making money and a means of gaining social admiration rather than as a person in his/her own right, with his/her own set of desires and feelings which may well not coincide with those of the parents. For example, s/he may not share his/her parents’ intense ambitions nor their desire to be in the glare of the public spotlight (and the inevitable pressures this entails).
The child, during this stage, may well come to feel that s/he is being treated as a kind of ‘money-making machine’ or business rather than as a sentient human being.
STAGE 3: POTENTIAL ABUSE – This is the final and most extreme stage during which the parents may be flagrantly exploiting the child to such an extent that the child is caused obvious emotional harm.
THE VIEW OF ALICE MILLER
Alice Miller (1923 – 2010) was one of the world’s foremost experts on the effects of childhood maltreatment and was of the view that many people who become international celebrities, having begun their careers in childhood are privately in emotional turmoil and lack insight into the fact that their desire for fame is driven by childhood unhappiness and that frequently, this childhood unhappiness was rooted in being only admired for his/her professional talents (e.g. acting or singing) without receiving the love s/he needed for simply being his/her ‘own, entire self’ (i.e. the self that encompasses all of his/her attributes, qualities and faults, not just the part of him/herself that led to his/her fame.
Miller goes on to suggest that often his/her childhood pain is never acknowledged or addressed because the famous individual lives in a culture in which nobody discusses such issues. And this state of affairs, Miller theorizes, leads to him/her becoming inexorably driven to repeat his/her childhood trauma in adulthood, with only the trappings of success and the fickle admiration of fans to ward off profound feelings of inner loneliness.
Such celebrities may respond by never feeling satisfied but, instead, become compulsively driven to achieve more and more and to become increasingly famous – this process is subject to the laws of diminishing returns and to chaining the famous person to a hedonic treadmill that can never lead to real fulfillment or the banishment of his/her deep feelings of emptiness.
SOME CONCLUDING GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ABOUT FAME AND ITS PITFALLS
Famous people may:
- Lose privacy
- Attract false friends
- Attract stalkers
- Find their activities are restricted
- Expose themselves to constant judgment and social media attacks
- Lose sense of ‘who they are’
- Find all their existing relationships are fundamentally affected, including family relationships
- Find it stressful having to constantly worry about appearance and how one is behaving due to fear of negative publicity
- Use access to wealth for self-destructive purposes, particularly if prone to self-destructive behavior prior to becoming famous
- Suffer disappointment that the benefits of fame do not live up to expectations and that the gain of financial wealth does not solve their emotional problems
- They become ‘paranoid’, constantly in fear of phones being tapped, being secretly filmed, having false allegations made against them, and being blackmailed
Childhood Fame And Brain Development
Young people are also more likely to suffer the pitfalls of fame because the brain’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed (it does not become fully developed until a person reaches their mid-twenties. Thie prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in higher cognitive abilities such as planning ahead, cognitive control, impulse control, problem-solving and cognitive flexibility. It follows then, that these skills are less developed in young people and, that the younger they are, the more likely it is that these ‘cognitive deficits’ will make the experience of pain particularly problematic.
According to neurologists Giles and Rockwell, when a young person suddenly becomes famous their brains are so overwhelmed by novel, stimulating information it becomes very difficult indeed for them to remain in touch with everyday reality and their empathetic ability may become impaired.
Feldman, Corey. Coreyography. Published October 29th 2013 by St. Martin’s Press. ISBN: 9781250054913
Miller, A., Free from lies – discovering your true self.. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Kindle edition.
Rockwell, Donna & Giles, David. (2009). Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. 40. 178-210. 10.1163/004726609X12482630041889.