We Spoke to a Psychologist About Child Stars and the Impact of an Unstable Family

Complex spoke with a psychologist about child stars like Britney Spears and how their families’ financial stability can either make or break their careers.

Britney Spears Child Stars Family

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Britney Spears Child Stars Family

Anyone who grew up loving ‘90s pop stars and Disney Channel stars has seen at least one or two of their favorite actors or singers go off the rails. Some child stars seem to come out of their early fame unscathed, while others struggle to adjust to their new wealth and to their lives as young adults. Many can’t deal with the level of attention they’re getting, the workload, the loss of their childhoods, and some are also forced to adjust to a new family dynamic. Oftentimes, the determining factor between a successful transition into fame and adulthood is the presence of a strong family unit. Being rich and famous as a minor isn’t as easy or glamorous as it seems, especially for those whose families also begin to financially depend on the child’s success. 

Britney Spears and her legal battles with her father, Jamie Spears have raised a lot of questions about child stars and their relationships with their parents. After learning about Spears’ conservatorship case in-depth in recent months and hearing Demi Lovato recently speak openly about her own unstable family dynamic, it became clear that there was a connection in these cases. It seems that whenever a child becomes the financial provider in the household, it throws off the balance and the power dynamic in the family and often ends with the child star failing to adjust to this new level of responsibility. In contrast, young celebrities who came from stable and financially well-off families seem to have an easier time accepting their new worlds. Stories of child stars whose chaotic relationships with their parents hurt their careers and their fortune go as far back as Jackie Coogan, Shirley Temple, Gary Coleman, and Macaulay Culkin, whose parents squandered their millions before they were even of age. In Coogan’s case, his mother and stepfather spent much of his fortune, and after taking them to court, he only ended up with $126,000. The case got so much attention that California enacted the Child Actor’s Bill, or The Coogan Law, which requires that a child actor’s employer set aside 15 percent of the earnings in a trust. Still, celebrities continue to find themselves at odds with their parents, who depend on them for money. 

Complex reached out to Shauna Springer Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who focuses on psychological trauma and close relationships and provides insights on a range of pop culture topics. When I presented my theory about child stars to Springer, she supported my observation of how vulnerable a child might feel when they don’t have a strong and solid support system when they are thrown into the spotlight. “The path to fame is lined by sharks. Child stars need guidance and protection from people who have their best interests in mind. In the worst-case scenarios, a parent or other guardian becomes yet another shark,” Springer told Complex. “Exploitation by a legal guardian—financially or emotionally—can lead to mental health or substance abuse challenges in a child star. The worst kind of abuse would be for a guardian to then take these challenges as evidence that the child needs to be managed by the very person who betrayed their trust in the first place.” 

Lindsay Lohan Family

Other young celebrities who have become even bigger stars as adults, like Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and Taylor Swift, seemed to have had an adequate amount of support and guidance from their parents, and that’s because their parents didn’t rely on their success. “There are examples of parents who support their child’s dreams—who provide guidance and protection as their child rises to fame. These parents offer a stable, emotionally healthy environment. They want their talented child to succeed, but they don’t need their child to succeed. There are others who operate under the guise of support while living out their own desire for wealth or fame through their children,” the psychologist added. “Money and fame bring a level of social power that is hard for a mature adult to navigate. Children who have to navigate this without the support of a trustworthy adult are outwardly powerful while being deeply vulnerable at the same time.”

Mara Wilson, who starred in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire as a child, retired from acting and pursued writing instead. As someone who found success as a kid in Hollywood, she understands better than anyone that her parents kept her sane throughout it all. “I chose to start acting when I was 5. It was my decision, and my parents tried their hardest to discourage me. When I insisted, they allowed me to act but were always very protective of me. I saw many child actors who did not have that, and they were all miserable. Kids whose parents pushed them into acting often grow up to resent them. They never had a choice, and worse, they never had the chance to be a kid,” she wrote in a Cracked article titled “7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy” in 2013, where she broke down different reasons some child actors find it hard to transition into adulthood. “When one of my preteen co-stars didn’t seem that into acting, I asked him why he even bothered doing it. ‘For the money,’ he said. I hadn’t considered that. My own money was an abstract concept: locked in a bank somewhere, to be used only after I turned 18. I was just acting because I liked it. But this kid was supporting his family.”

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Drew Barrymore appeared on the 4D With Demi Lovato podcast in June, and the two former child stars had a deep and thought-provoking conversation about their experiences. Lovato and Barrymore both found a great deal of career and financial success at an early age, but it also resulted in them battling addictions to drugs and other substances that threatened not only their careers but also their lives. At one point in the conversation, they agreed that being the breadwinners in their families caused a strain in their relationships with their parents. “I noticed that when I came into the spotlight at a young age and then was the breadwinner like you said, there wasn’t a dossier, there wasn’t a manual for my parents to read, and it would say, ‘Here’s what to do to raise a child star.’ They didn’t get that,” Lovato shared. “So when they would try to ground me at 17, I would say, ‘I pay the bills!’ And I cringe now when I think about that attitude, but when the world is putting you on a pedestal you kind of think that you can do no wrong. As I’ve gotten older, I see my parents just as big kids themselves.” Barrymore responded, “Well, I was going to say, I don’t think it’s the world and the pedestal, I think it’s the parent-child dynamic that gets completely reversed. And no wonder you won’t take an order from an authority figure who is no longer an authority figure because you’ve now reduced them down with finances and responsibilities.”

Barrymore’s mother used to take her to nightclubs at age 8 where she would drink, smoke weed, and use other drugs all before she turned 13. In Lovato’s case, she was under immense pressure as a Disney Channel star to look, behave, and perform a certain way while also dealing with the responsibilities of being a provider for her family, which eventually led to drug addiction. While it was their parents’ job to protect them and remove them from those environments, nobody stepped in until both actresses were in too deep. “When a legal guardian comes to rely on the money that their child generates, they may be more likely to overlook or conceal struggles like substance abuse, mental health struggles, or eating disorders—for fear that seeking help might negatively impact the income they depend on,” Springer said.  

Demi Lovato mom

Fans can sometimes find it difficult to comprehend why a rich celebrity goes off the deep end when they have money and access to whatever they want. Most people’s hardships are much worse and their situations could simply be fixed with more money, but that doesn’t mean that having money fixes everything for everybody. Not everyone can easily adjust to that life without proper guidance, and the added accessibility and temptations often lead them down a negative path. Money isn’t everything, especially when someone isn’t aware of how to manage it. “To many people, it may not be obvious that a significant increase in one’s income can cause higher stress. But a sudden increase in income or social status is often associated with having to learn a new set of unspoken rules. A visible increase in social status or income can also change family dynamics and may bring predatory individuals and new temptations into one’s life,” Springer said. “Navigating these changes as an adult can be stressful, even with trustworthy support and guidance. For child stars, these sudden changes can be overwhelming and may in some cases be associated with the onset of substance abuse and other challenges.”

Someone like Miley Cyrus is an exception, though. She came from an already famous and wealthy family, and although she had her moments where her antics overpowered her talents, she was still able to find a way back to a more stable path. Her father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, spoke to GQ in 2011 about his daughter’s wild moments onstage, the videos of her smoking salvia, and drinking underage. The dad and daughter duo starred in Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana at the time and he said he felt he had lost control over his daughter and it was her “people” who had more power over her. “For the record, to set it straight, I want to tell you: I’ve never made a dime off of Miley. You got a lot of people have made percentages off of her. I’m proud to say to this day I’ve never made one commissioned dollar, or dime, off of my daughter,” he said. And even though her “handlers” only reached out to him when his daughter was in trouble, he said he was, “not been able to have a voice” in regards to his child.  

Sometimes the people the child works for take over and give the parents little to no control. For other child stars like ​​Christina Vidal, the star of Nickelodeon’s Taina, her mom stood up for her at every turn, which resulted in the show being canceled after just two seasons. “What was important was my mom wanted me to have a childhood and was very selective about the roles I took. She let me work here and there, but during the summer, so I didn’t miss school. Spike Lee actually wanted me to be in Crooklyn—he even called my house personally—but my mom said no to Spike Lee!” she told the LA Timesin June. “I think it had something to do with me getting a record deal, and just not doing everything they wanted me to do. I wasn’t new to the business then—I was 20. I had a lawyer, I had people around me who knew my rights. This was a time when they had kids do a whole bunch of stuff without having any rights.” The publication brought up accounts of “shady” behavior by the network toward its child stars and said Vidal didn’t experience that because she had an “army” by her side. “And the general was my mother! I’ll give you a little tea. I was dating one of the choreographers at the time, who was much older than me. When my mom found out, ooh girl… She got him fired. She said, ‘You guys are not protecting my daughter if you’re allowing this to happen!’ I’m a Christian, and I believe God gave me that mother for a reason.”

Justin Bieber mother

Other stars like Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, and Amanda Bynes, found themselves also struggling to move past their child star days and some of their legal troubles often highlighted their rocky relationships with their parents. For example, in Britney Spears’ case,The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears documentary showed that her parents and her team controlled every aspect of the singer’s life. Eventually, when she experienced a breakdown in 2007, her father used that as an opportunity to demand a judge appoint him as her legal conservator. That ruling gave him control over various areas of her life including her finances and her fortune. Fourteen years later, and she’s still fighting for freedom after being under her father’s and others’ control for a large majority of her adult life. “With conservatorship of a child star, there is potential for exploitation and abuse—especially when there is a vast fortune involved,” Springer said. “Appointing a conservator who is financially and emotionally stable, that has shown over time that he or she has their child’s best interests in mind, can decrease the risk of exploitation of a child star.”

The effects of being under such scrutiny and control can also have lasting effects. “Exploitation by a guardian can lead a child star to feel like there is no safe person that protects their interests. This kind of abuse is a personal betrayal and can lead to PTSD,” the psychologist shared. “If I could speak to anyone who has been exploited in this way, I would say that it makes perfect sense that they are experiencing trauma symptoms. However, I would also want them to know that healing is possible with the right insights and support.”

It is easy to cast these people off as spoiled or entitled whenever we hear of their latest antics on the news. Everyone saw photos of Spears hitting a paparazzi car with an umbrella, but very few knew what was going on behind the scenes. It’s easy to pass judgment on people who seem to have it all, but no one prepares them for that level of fame, access, and also the vulnerability that comes with fame, especially at a young age. Most people’s mistakes from their teenage years or early 20s weren’t broadcast for all to see, and their financial decisions also didn’t affect their families. It is a lifestyle that most people won’t ever experience so it’s easy to judge but difficult to truly understand unless you relate. Fame and wealth aren’t for everyone, especially those who don’t have a strong core foundation to fall back on. So it’s no surprise that some of the stars that have been at the top of the world fall from grace just as quickly. Money isn’t everything, especially when it takes away the few people they should be able to trust and depend upon no matter what.

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