Child star Hilary Duff was recently on the “Good Guys” podcast, hosted by Josh Peck and Ben Soffer (1). Duff, a past Nickelodeon star, has famously avoided the often-tragic fate of young celebrity life. Peck, also a Nickelodeon star, has frequently talked about his struggle with addiction in his youth.

“Have you not had a margarita and a vicodin?” Peck asked the star. (:45)

“Actually, never,” Duff replied. “I can say that. Never.”

“Wow,” Peck said. “You’re not the child star I thought you were.”

The comment is met by laughter. Why do we normalize this path?

It is no secret that our favorite child stars often fall off the bandwagon coming into adulthood. From more modern actors including Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes and Macaulay Culkin, all the way to the golden age of Hollywood — Judy Garland, Bobby Driscoll, Shirley Temple — child stars are highly vulnerable to drug and alcohol addiction.

Children under the spotlights of Hollywood don’t grow up with regular kid problems. Remember that cringey music video you made on your iPod Touch when you were 10? No one saw it but your parents. When you joined a sport that you were ultimately not good at, only your friends teased you about it. When you failed a test, the grade was kept face down on your desk. For a child star, there are millions of eyes watching them learn and grow without much room for mistake. In a competitive field, an error can easily lead to the end of a career. The stress of it would be enough to set anyone on edge.

What is Child Actor Syndrome?

The term “Child Actor Syndrome” is often used in media to describe troubled adults who grew up from childhood acting. They may struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues as a result of the scrutiny they lived under during important developmental years. The constant demand for perfection leads child actors to throw away the innocent persona enforced by producers, organizations and managers at the earliest convenience. Would you want to live under such intense stress all your life?

As child stars age, they are often faced with rejection, objectification and a sense of burnout that can turn many away from the industry in its entirety. According to an article written by Paracelsus Recovery, former child actors are one of the most vulnerable communities for mental health problems. Child Actor Syndrome is more often viewed as “poor decision-making” instead of what it actually is — a sign of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Identity crisis

A child actor that has a successful career as a child may have a difficult time coming to terms with growing as an actor as they age. Many childhood actors leave the industry completely before the age of 30 after experiencing a lack of roles. The term “Disney acting” is used in media to describe these kinds of actors — ones who never develop acting skills past what was needed in childhood.

If you’ve been playing a role or persona since early childhood, how do you know where the character ends and you begin? Under the careful inspection of higher-ups, fans and agencies, how do you ever get the chance to find out? Child stars struggle to separate themselves from public perception of them, a feat that is much easier to accomplish in adulthood. Actors who join the industry as adults get to experience self-identification that child actors never receive.

The “Lucky One”

The paradox of childhood stardom is a difficult one to come to terms with. Gaining fame in the past may have been luck — can you assume that you will still be lucky in the future? Child actors endure harsh schedules and long hours to work hard in their fields. The pressure to be the best is constant, and burnout can hit hard. To keep up with the stress, some actors take uppers. To temporarily forget about the burden, some take downers. Many scholars consider fame itself as a drug, and when child actors experience withdrawal it can lead many to turn to drugs and alcohol for a similar kick.

When child actors grow up to resent the theoretical childhood they missed out on, they are often labeled as ungrateful and spoiled. This can lead to a sense of guilt and embarrassment, overall negatively affecting self-esteem.

Childhood abuse and attention

Unfortunately, childhood actors are often faced with a variety of abuse, including financial, emotional and sexual. There is a distinct lack of privacy and stability offered in the face of stardom. Children in the industry struggle to differentiate between types of attention. To an actor and a child alike, all attention is good attention. The constant observation can feel overwhelming, especially when also dealing with the strain of growing up. Child actors have a sense of being watched at all times, which in turn can lead to increased loneliness and trust issues before even reaching puberty.

Child stars work in a field that does not care for their overall well-beings. They are often objectified before they can even come to terms with what it means. Children are far more susceptible to abuse in Hollywood and, even worse, are rarely protected by the adults which should be protecting them. Turning to the pleasures of drugs unfortunately seems like an obvious choice in the face of mistreatment.

What does this all mean?

A social movement to protect childhood stars in multiple forms of fame has been in effect for years now, though we still often see failure when it comes to protecting children from the limelight. With newer ways to subject kids to fame — TikTok, Youtube and “family channels” being prime contenders — regulation of child labor in media often can’t keep up demand. The normalization of mistreatment within the industry has in turn normalized the expected “downfall” of child stars when they reach adulthood.

Disney child star Alyson Stoner addressed growing up in the spotlight. In the op-ed “The Toddler to Trainwreck Industrial Complex,” Stoner wrote, “Very few resources exist to help people unpack and navigate the implications of a child star-studded culture, whether you’re the kid, the parent, the agent or the audience.” (2)

So what can be done?

Education on the subject is vital. Instead of judging our favorite childhood stars for not meeting expectations in adulthood, we should take a step back and consider why it happened in the first place. Child stars receive little empathy in the public eye. In the pursuit of self-actualization and rebellion, we should encourage psychological help to assist child stars in coping with the burden of fame. Calling out and scrutinizing unhealthy coping mechanisms within the industry, especially when it comes to children, is the first step.