Content warning: This article contains information about mental illness, addiction and sexual abuse which may be triggering to readers.
“I don’t wanna do that ever again. I feel like a product,” Selena Gomez says during a particularly bad day of press. The moment, captured by film crews and shared in her new documentary, My Mind and Me, highlights Gomez’s struggle to transition from one-time Disney child star whose heyday has been and gone to an adult whose best days are still to come.
The documentary, which also explores Gomez’s mental health, premiered just two days before the death of former child pop star Aaron Carter and came weeks after Demi Lovato spoke candidly about unhealthy power dynamics in Hollywood relationships in their new song.
In August, former Nickelodeon actor Jennette McCurdy made headlines around the world with her memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died, which details the toxic relationship she had with her late mother and former manager Debra McCurdy. In it, McCurdy claims taught her how to be anorexic at age 11 and details years of “excruciating” abuse.
“It’s a pretty unusual upbringing,” Dr Kimberley O’Brien, a Principal Child Psychologist from The Quirky Kid tells The Latch. “How do you live a normal life after having such a strange upbringing?”
From Drew Barrymore becoming addicted to cocaine at the age of 12, Daniel Radcliffe battling alcoholism after the immense childhood success of the Harry Potter franchise, Lindsay Lohan’s drink driving, alleged drug abuse and accusations of shoplifting, Mary-Kate Olsen’s struggles with anorexia, which led to inpatient treatment in 2004, Demi Lovato’s near-fatal overdose in 2018, and Zac Efron’s admission of drug and alcohol addiction, the path from child star to healthy, functioning adult is often a rocky one. But why?
According to O’Brien, there are a handful of fundamentals that, when removed from a child’s life, can lead to problems later on. These need to be managed from the outset to ensure children in the spotlight have the best chance at having a happy and healthy life. These include fostering age appropriate friendships, having clear family relationships between parents and children and ensuring a child’s mental and physical welfare is always front and centre.
O’Brien explains that often, working child stars aren’t able to foster those important childhood friendships and connections, because they’re often “surrounded by adults and adult conversations”, be it on sets or on tour.
“Children need to be around their peers and spend time with people their own age; that’s really important,” she says. “Whether that’s with siblings or making sure friendships from school are maintained, we do tend to see that kids who have a connection to people their own age have better relationships and are better at communicating as adults.”
Another common scenario, and one that celebrities like McCurdy, Carter, Shirley Temple and Macaulay Culkin and have shown the pitfalls of, is when parents become managers of their children’s careers and, in turn, an employee of their child.
“The parent-child dynamic is a really important thing and where that is disturbed or changed it needs to be addressed pretty quickly,” O’Brien says. “A child isn’t equipped to parent their parents and if they’re put in a situation where they have to do that, that’s when you will see attention seeking behaviour or acting out.”
In the years before his death, Carter battled mental health issues, drug addiction and public family feuds, but Aaron isn’t the only Carter who has faced public battles. Aaron’s brother, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and faced allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault over the years.
Carter’s mother, Jane Carter, has also publicly battled alcoholism, and his sister Leslie Carter, died from an accidental drug overdose in 2012. In 2019, Carter claimed that Leslie sexually abused him from the age of 10 to 13, but Carter’s twin sister, Angel Carter, disputed this, saying that Carter was “fabricating stories”. Carter’s other sister, Bobbie Jean “BJ” Carter, also denied that Leslie had abused Aaron, and publicly stated that the sexual abuse between Aaron and Leslie “was the other way around”. BJ Carter has also battled addiction over the years, with multiple DUI and battery arrests over the years.
Also of note is that at one point in his career, Carter was managed by Lou Pearlman, who was convicted of running one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, as documented in The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story. Pearlman had also faced allegations of sexual abuse and molestation of underage boys. In the documentary, Carter defended Pearlman, which was a surprise to former NSYNC member Lance Bass.
“We had to fight for him to be in the film because he wasn’t part of a boy band, but we knew he had great stories because if anyone, he was the closest to Lou at such a young age,” Bass said.
“We thought that him deciding to do this, he was going to really tell insane stories that we always heard rumours about, so we were trying to get some confirmation finally,” he continued.
On the other hand, Carter had accused his parents of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from him at the height of his fame, which put a strain on their familial bonds over the years.
“When someone finds fame and begins to earn a lot of money they can become surrounded by people who all benefit from them continuing doing what they’re doing, even if it’s not good for them,” O’Brien says. “When relationships become enmeshed with money and success, that network of people you love and genuinely trust really narrows and it can easily lead to a spiral and feeling like there’s no exit.”
To better protect child entertainers, O’Brien says, there should be trained professionals around, who are unrelated parties to the star. Their job would be to help spot when a child may be suffering and get them the help they need before the situation escalates.
“You need a child psychologist or someone else around that can look out for those signs that a parent might just write off as having a bad day,” she explained. “Someone [who] is there for the child and whose focus is ensuring the child is coping well and isn’t motivated by money or fame.”
O’Brien also says that for the issue to get better, support needs to be in place not just while children are under contract to a studio or record company, but well into adulthood.
“That fame only has a short-term level of success,” she says. “When children phase out and they stop being that cute kid, and being more special than everybody else, and people assume your heyday is behind you, that’s where they need the most support.
“It’s quite a weight to bear to no longer be as popular or adored as you were when you were growing up,” she adds.
With much of the damage already done for many millennial-era child stars who are now seeking to heal in adulthood, another form of support, it seems, is former child stars uniting to share their lived experiences.
Already, Gomez’s documentary is being championed for its fearlessness, while McCurdy’s book has topped bestseller lists around the world. Lovato has also confirmed they’re working on a project that will speak to fellow former child stars about their lives inside the industry.
For O’Brien, the best way to help is to go back to basics.
“It’s about having as many normal childhood experiences as you can and having fun.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.