Multiple stints in rehab. Forced mental locdowns. And a parental guardianship that shows no signs of ending.
When perky poppets leading lives of early fame and privilege publicly implode, the world shakes its collective head and wonders what went wrong.
Lindsay Lohan, who has come to personify the woes faced by child performers, just completed her latest stint in rehab. In her first post-rehab interview set to air Aug. 18, Oprah Winfrey asks Lohan what it feels like to be both an adjective and a verb for a child star gone wrong.
It's a legitimate question, with no simple answers. For many child stars who taste blinding fame and potentially mind-blowing fortune before they hit puberty, the gauzy, magical exterior of their lives is at odds with a far grittier reality.
"You're a child who is working. You have a job. That job is a hard job. Everybody thinks being a child star is glamorous. But when you're on a show, you are often carrying a whole show and you know that. You have to pull it off. You have to know your lines. People are making money off you," says Tia Mowry, who co-starred on the series Sister, Sister with her twin, Tamera, at 16. "And then, you have to go to school. You miss out on a lot of things. I had to miss my prom. You see these kids on Disney and it seems like so much fun. At the same time, it's an 8-year-old with a J-O-B. It's a lot of pressure."
Just look at Amanda Bynes, the formerly fresh-faced Nickelodeon star, who is hospitalized in Los Angeles while undergoing psychiatric evaluation after making headlines on both coasts for her troubling behavior. And Britney Spears, the poster child of bizarre meltdowns, has been under the conservatorship of her father since 2008.
And yet, not everyone ends up a Lohan or a Bynes or Spears or a Justin Bieber, the wunderkind who has made headlines recently for getting in a fight outside a club in Southampton, N.Y.
"If the parents are able to keep every other aspect of the child's life controlled and normal and there are continued boundaries and rules, those are the kids that do well," says psychologist Ginger Clark, an associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California. "If you don't have a really stable parental unit that's setting limits ahead of time, then the roles get flipped easily and the child becomes the parent. They're not ready for the responsibility. And you see kids spin out a little bit."
But that didn't happen to Natalie Portman, who started out as a child actor in The Professional, graduated from Harvard and won an Oscar for playing a demented ballerina in Black Swan. Dakota Fanning, one of today's most celebrated young actors, is studying at New York University; Mickey Mouse Club alum Justin Timberlake's album, The 20/20 Experience, has been the best-selling album of the year, to date. And Miranda Cosgrove, who headlined iCarly on Nickelodeon, packed it in to study at the University of Southern California without a scandal to her name.
And then there's Jodie Foster, who earned her first Oscar nomination for playing a teen hooker in 1976's Taxi Driver and graduated from Yale before going on to win two gold statuettes.
Talent alone is not enough for youngsters to survive and thrive in Hollywood. But those who can survive walk away with an arsenal of experience at their disposal.
"These kids need a lot of support and they need to be kids. They need to be able to realize that this job is cool, but you're still a kid," says Mowry. "The plus side, you're equipped. You have discipline. You become seasoned. If you can stay away from drugs and parties, you're seasoned by the time you're 20 and you know what it's like to get the job done."
Often, when a youngster falls apart, the blame, whether right or wrong, falls squarely on parents. Were they pushy, pugnacious moms and dads, shuttling their kids to auditions, refusing to let them quit, and being blinded by behemoth paychecks? Sometimes that's the case, as with one mom who was spotted at a post-Golden Globes party guzzling cocktails while her nominated and visibly miserable young daughter struggled to stay awake next to her.
"You see these parents wanting to live their life through their children. You see parents who want the spotlight. They start to look more glamorous and drive fancier cars than their kids," says former child actress Melissa Joan Hart, 37.
And yet just as often, parents do their best to keep their kids somewhat balanced and level-headed. Such was the case with Hart, who was famous first at 15 as the star of Nickelodeon's Clarissa Explains It All, then as the face of ABC's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and now as one-half of Melissa & Joey on ABC Family.
"I wanted to act," says Hart. "My siblings wanted to do it, as well, for a short time, and then they weren't interested. My parents let me explore that. They weren't interested in it themselves. They were trying to protect me. It became my mom's job to take me on auditions. She didn't want to be rich and famous."
When Sister, Sister ended its run, Mowry's parents pushed her and her twin to go to college. The two obliged, studying psychology at Pepperdine University; now they're starring on the reality show Tia & Tamera for the Style Network. Mostly, she says, her parents told her she and her sister could quit any time, when it stopped being fun and started to become a burden. Others weren't so lucky.
"I'll never forget, even before Sister, Sister I was doing commercials, and I was doing a Barbie commercial. This family clearly didn't need money. There was one other girl and she did not want to do it. You could tell her mom was pushing her to do it. The kids will tell you, 'I don't want to do this.' You would see the moms push their kids," says Mowry.
And that's the crux of the issue, say experts. Kids learn how to navigate their environment, and deal with challenges, by being around their peers and learning how to solve problems through play.
"Childhood is about finding out who you are and being able to relate to others, and those things are harder to learn when you're famous. That amount of public scrutiny makes it hard on kids to do that. They can't mess up. So they have to adopt a very self-assured, precocious identity very quickly," says New Jersey-based clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore.
Yet the lure of stardom and its perks can be irresistible.
"The money is a big draw, but in this particular industry, there's a very strong allure because of the celebrity and the attention and the potential to become famous," says child development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige, the author of Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids.
"The younger a kid is when he or she gets into this business, the more likelihood it will be damaging because their needs are not met. The basic needs of childhood have nothing to do with working or the entertainment industry. A young child doesn't even understand what the entertainment industry is."
Or what it means to be a star. Famous people can suck the air out of a room. Everyone stares at them, looks at them for social cues and monitors their every move. Imagine that happening to an insecure child, who suddenly gets a puffed-up sense of self-importance.
"There are a lot of people giving them special attention. They have people coddling them. They're getting a false idea of who they are and where they fit into the world. When challenges come, they don't have the repertoire internally that got built through those healthy experiences other kids had. So they might have a drug problem or act out in some way," says Carlsson-Paige.
And when they do, it makes headlines. In this age of 24/7 social media, privacy is a luxury few can afford. There's Bieber and his June car accident involving his Ferrari and a photographer, Miley Cyrus being caught on video smoking what was believed to be salvia, or Bynes' odd Twitter rants about plastic surgery and ugly people.
"You're so exposed. Every ridiculous thought you had as a kid will haunt you for the rest of your life. These kids are exposing themselves," says Hart.
And some, like Field of Dreams cutie Gabby Hoffman, are ending up nearly broke. By law in California, New York, Louisiana and New Mexico, 15% of the minor's gross wages have to be deposited into a so-called Coogan trust account, named after former child actor Jackie Coogan, whose earnings were all squandered before age 21. But that doesn't mean, by a long shot, that cash is managed well.
"Sometimes when these kids start to make more money than their parents, the parents don't feel like they can control their kids, or that they can't step in and say no. Or they step in when the damage is done. It should never have to get to this point," says Mowry.
Joey Lawrence, who made girls swoon on Blossom and now co-stars on Melissa & Joey with Hart, faults today's celebrity culture, which values notoriety above all else.
"When I was growing up, it was about work. Twitter did not exist. If you worked hard, you would continue to work. The celebrity part kind of happened. It wasn't something I thought about," he says. "I didn't realize I was making money until I was 12 or 13, and my mom told me it was for my future, for college."
Yet often, it's easier to give pampered starlets whatever they want. Keep 'em happy and keep 'em working.
"Drug problems are rampant anyway among kids. They're not unique to young actors. The fact that they're famous just spotlights it," says Lucia Scarano Forte, a working actress who's been in Under the Dome and Won't Back Down and has worked with a lot of kids. "The fact that they have money, they can buy what they want, they get favors, they're exposed to stuff younger, and exposed to things that they think are acceptable, and it gets out of control. And if the parents want that lifestyle, they too get caught up in it."
Forte used to teach drama to children - until domineering parents became too much for her. She recalls toddlers being on non-union film sets until 2 a.m. barely awake, and being taught their lines by frustrated parents. Or of parents quitting jobs, pulling kids out of schools, and relocating to Los Angeles to pursue that ephemeral dream of fame and fortune.
"If the kid is not having fun and it's not coming from them, it's time to quit," she says unequivocally.
Experts say the key to a long, healthy career and a stable personal life is to be surrounded by positive influences and make smart choices. And not let greed or an inflated sense of self dictate your choices, advises top Hollywood casting director Randi Hiller.
"When the public is used to seeing someone as a child, and everyone has spent all these years admiring you as a kid, it takes them a while to catch up. There aren't that many fantastic roles for young adults," says Hiller. "You need to allow people to see you in a different light more subtly. If you try to carry a movie, carry the movie in a responsible way. It takes the public a while to catch up your age. Dakota Fanning is a good example of someone doing it right."