Growing up can be a traumatic experience, even for people who have relatively “normal” childhoods and adolescent years. Other kids don’t have it as easy, because no one has control over who their parents are, or where they are born – it really is like winning (or losing) the lottery. The hardships kids face while figuring out how to be functioning adults are often called “growing pains” because they hurt so much.
For celebrity kids, tweens, and teens, these bumps and bends in the road can seem harder, mostly because they’re in the public all the time, and the paparazzi may be recording some of the worst moments of their lives before they’re old enough to cope. The life of a celebrity often seems blessed, but some pretty horrific things can happen behind closed doors. Some children make it through their strained and difficult childhoods stronger, learning from their hardships, whereas others continue to struggle into their adult lives because they can’t get over the tragedies they have faced– this is no different for kids who are actors.
Sometimes these stories hit the news, other times celebrities have become famous despite their difficult pasts, sharing their stories long after they’ve broken into the industry. These are 15 child actors that experienced terrible personal tragedies.
15. Gary Coleman Suffered With Kidney Disease
Gary Coleman rose to fame and became a household name when he was just 10 years old and starring on the hit show Diff’rent Strokes in 1978. For nearly a decade Coleman portrayed the loveable younger adoptive son of a wealthy man named Philip Drummond. He quickly became known for his small stature and witty catch phrase “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout Willis?” with fans loving him. Unfortunately one of the things that helped bring Coleman fame, his childlike height, was caused by a congenital autoimmune kidney condition. The star was constantly in and out of the hospital both before and after he found success as a child star. He required daily dialysis and was the recipient of two kidney transplants in his life. In addition to his health worries, the star also had many financial issues thanks to his adoptive parents not managing his earnings properly. Gary Coleman died when he was just 42 years old following a fall in his home which led to a brain hemorrhage.
14. Shia LaBeouf’s Father Suffered From PTSD And Held A Gun To His Head
Shia LaBeouf may have money today, but that wasn’t always the case. His childhood was spent with his heroin addicted and abusive father, a Vietnam Veteran who had PTSD. The star’s young life comprised of a lot of time tagging along with his dad who was attending AA meetings, so it really isn’t surprising that Shia himself has also struggled with his own demons. One time his father, during a flashback to the war, held a gun to Shia’s head. After his parents divorced, things weren’t any easier for his single mother to make ends meet. It was then that Shia decided to become an actor, and help his poverty stricken family. Even though they had their problems over the years, Shia remains close and supportive to both of his parents using his fortune to help support them both.
13. Joaquin Phoenix Saw His Big Brother Die
Everything seemed to be going so well for the Phoenix family in the late 1980s and early 1990s. River was getting critical acclaim for his roles in hits including Stand by Me, My Own Private Idaho, and he had been cast as a young Indiana Jones in the popular series. When other members of the family began trying their hands at acting fans awaited eagerly in anticipation of their talents. Unfortunately, near the peak of his Stardom, River died of a drug overdose outside Johnny Depp’s nightclub, Viper Room. His younger brother Joaquin at his side as his brother lost his life thanks to a speedball. Joaquin managed to cope and go on to become a successful award winning actor, despite the loss of his older brother. Unfortunately this death will continue to haunt him. In 2013 a new biography for River claimed that the star might have been able to survive had his friends, and brother looked for help sooner. The book claims that teenaged Joaquin insisted that his brother was okay and only called for help after River went into drug related convulsions.
12. Rose McGowan Was Part Of A Cult As A Child
The early years of actor Rose McGowan’s life were everything but Charmed. She spent the first nine years of her life in the borders of a controversial cult group known as Children of God. The group combined hippie based attitudes of free-love alongside preparations for the second coming of Jesus Christ. She lived in this commune alongside her parents, and even as a child remembers being upset about the way women were treated there. She says, “I remember watching how the cult’s men were with the women, and at a very early age I decided I did not want to be like those women. They were basically there to serve the men sexually.” She recalls women going to bars to “pick up” new recruits which was referred to as “flirty fishing”. She and her family left the cult when it began to encourage sex between adults and children.
11. Brandy Killed A Woman With Her Car And Injured Two Kids
Brandy was just 17 years old when she landed a TV show of her own (Moesha). She was riding high when her collaborative hit “The Boy is Mine” with singer Monica won a Grammy in 1998. Everything seemed to be perfect for the young starlet as she entered adulthood and more mature projects, until tragedy struck. On December 30, 2006 she was driving home when she was involved in a fatal car accident where two children were injured, and their mother was killed. Shattered by the incident the star was investigated for manslaughter, although there wasn’t enough evidence to lay the charges. Years later Brandy told Oprah of the dark time period in her life, “I don’t think that’s something I could ever get over or ever truly understand, but that was one of the worst times in my life.”
10. Leighton Meester’s Mother Was In Prison And Pregnant With Her
Although she managed to keep her secret from the public and the press for a little while, in 2008 word got out that Gossip Girl teen actress Leighton Meester had a dark past involving prison. In 1983 Leighton’s mother was imprisoned for helping smuggle a 1,200 pound shipment of marijuana out of Jamaica as a part of a plan that also included Meester’s father and aunt. After their arrest, Leighton’s aunt broke out of prison and holds the dubious honour of being the first woman to make the U.S. Marshal’s 15 Most Wanted List. Since her mother was pregnant with Leighton when she was arrested, she was permitted to go to a hospital for her daughter’s birth, however still had to serve the 16 months in prison following Leighton’s birth. Her parents, who later separated, managed to move past their questionable behaviour after their daughter’s birth, thankfully.
9. Drew Barrymore Struggled With Addiction At A Young Age
Do you remember Drew Barrymore as that cute seven year-old-kid in ET? This was long before she was the RomCom sweetheart and petite Hollywood giant we know her as today. Unfortunately, behind the scenes of the films she spent her childhood trying to numb her pain through drink and drugs. Her grandfather, despite being a successful legendary screen director, had a drinking problem and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the young age of 60. His son, Drew’s Dad, was also named John and had a severe alcohol problem like his dad, abandoned Drew and her mom when Drew was still a baby. He spent most of his life in and out of jail on drug related charges, and died of cancer just a few years ago. Her mother would take eight-year-old Drew to Hollywood parties where Drew got hooked on alcohol and drugs herself. In her book Little Girl Lost she wrote about her struggles to fit in, find order in her chaotic Hollywood life all while growing up and getting clean. Thankfully Drew managed to get it all together and remains a Hollywood staple, despite her rocky childhood.
8. Ariel Winter’s Mother Was Emotionally And Physically Abusive To Her
Although Ariel Winter is now coming into her own as an adult, the Modern Family star struggled through emotional abuse and sought emancipation from her mother, Chrystal Gray, at just 15 years old. At the time the actor asked a judge to allow for her 35-year-old sister Shanelle Gray to take over her custody in place of her own mother who was emotionally and physically abusive. In the court documents Winter accused her mother of slapping, hitting, and pushing her. There were other rumours of Chrystal Gray depriving her daughter of food and being highly involved with the star’s figure and diet. Her mom has since denied these accusations, insisting they stem from Ariel wanting to date an older boy that she disapproved of. Just the same Ariel was granted her request, and is free from her mother’s control.
7. Jenna Malone Was Emancipated From Her Mom At 15
The talented young actress shone recently in her portrayal of Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games series, but she struggled when she was younger, thanks in part to her own mother. Jenna got her start on films like Contact, For the Love of the Game, and several popular TV series. Jenna’s mom mismanaged her daughter’s money, and Jenna accused her ma of misusing one million dollars of her earnings. Her mother reportedly threatened to move her daughter to Las Vegas (which would make working in Hollywood harder for the star) if she were to go through with firing her, and file her request for emancipation. Malone was granted emancipation from her money-wasting mom when she was just 15 years old.
6. Demi Moore’s Stepfather Took His Own Life When She Was 17
Demi Moore’s childhood traumas began before she was even born. Her biological father, Charles Harmon left her teenage mother after just two months of marriage, and before the arrival of Demi. When Moore was a baby her mother re-married another man, Dan Guynes, who she believed to be her real father until she was 13 years old when she found her “parents’” marriage certificate. In an interview with Vanity Fair Moore said, “There is a man who would be considered my biological father who I don’t really have a relationship with.” Her father was said to struggle keeping a job because of his addictions, and his marriage fell apart with Demi’s mom in 1978. In 1980, her stepfather committed suicide. The brat pack actor was just 17 at the time.
5. Aaron Carter’s Mother Stole Over $100K From Him
Although better known for his singing career, and more recently for his time on Dancing with the Stars, Aaron Carter is another childhood actor whose parents took advantage of his earning potential. When Aaron found out that his mother was stealing his money, not only did he fire her as his manager, he asked her to pack her bags as mom as well. He filed for and received legal emancipation from his mother in 2003, claiming that she had stolen over $100,000 dollars from his bank account at the time. Unfortunately, in the years post “momagment” Carter’s ties to famous fraudster Lou Pearlman had him in tax arrears and led to the star filing for bankruptcy. The good news is the star has reconciled with his mom despite their rocky history.
4. Corey Feldman Was Abused As A Child By Men In The Industry
Corey Feldman had an amazing career as a child, but as he revealed in his biography Coreyography, behind the silver screen was a horrible reality. When interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter Feldman disclosed that he was repeatedly molested by adult men in the industry and that many others knew this was happening and did nothing to stop it. Feldman has qualified about one of the abusers, “This person uses intimidation and threats as a way to keep people quiet. And all these men were all friends”. In addition to these atrocities Feldman was granted emancipation from his abusive and neglectful mother at 15, when he was also able to control his own finances. It has been suggested that when his mother was in charge of the purse strings a million dollars of Feldman’s childhood income was whittled down to $40,000 thanks to her influence.
3. Macaulay Culkin’s Younger Sister Died In A Car Accident
This Home Alone star was a part of a franchise that raked in over 800 million dollars globally in the early 1990s, but that doesn’t mean that his life was all trips to Disneyland with Michael Jackson (even though sometimes it was). He was one of the most successful child actors of all time, but he still couldn’t escape his troubles. His parents had a highly publicized divorce and custody battle over all of the Culkin children which couldn’t have been easy; especially since a lot of the fight had to do with who got access to their son’s 50 million dollar bank account. Shortly following the divorce, young Culkin was able to gain control of his own finances, and received legal emancipation from his parents. He then cut all ties with his father. In 2008, his younger sister Dakota died after being hit by a car. There were rumours spread in the National Enquirer a few years ago about the child star, saying that he was abusing heroin. True or untrue, many former fans of the plucky Kevin McCallister have to wonder what happened. Others close to the star say he’s laying low following his crazy childhood as a star
2. Tobey Maguire’s Father Failed Robbing A Bank And Went To Jail
In an origin story worthy of Spiderman himself, Tobey Maguire’s dad is a bank robber who just wanted to support his family during a particularly hard financial time. He decided to rob a bank after his sister died of cancer and he had her two children, as well as his young son Tobey to look after. Working as a chef, he decided a bank robbery would be a good way to get the family back in the black, unfortunately he wasn’t a very good robber. He robbed the bank directly across the street from his home, in the middle of the day, without a mask. Neighbours identified him running across the street with the money he’d stolen and called the police. Since it was a first offence, and he didn’t have a weapon so he only served two years. He’s said to have learned his lesson and has been on team ‘good guy’ ever since. Tobey spent much of his childhood living on food stamps, and spending some time in a homeless shelter with his family, and used this hard living as an inspiration towards his success today.
1. Melissa Francis’ Mom Was Abusive To Her
Melissa Francis is now a Fox Business News Anchor, but in the 1980s she played Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on the hit show Little House on the Prairie. The young star grew up alongside a cruel stage mother who wanted her daughter to be perfect and lashed out at her when things didn’t meet her high expectations. Melissa wrote a book about her childhood, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter to help create awareness of the impact parents have on their children, particularly Tiger Moms. Melissa has said of her experiences, with her emotionally abusive mom, “I realized at that moment that [my mother] was really insane. But that same type of response [from my mother] affected my sister [differently] and [made her feel] she was [not] worthy and it destroyed her. She carried that [emotional burden] and disapproval with her everywhere she went. I think that the Tiger Mom is extremely dangerous and that’s what I wanted to demonstrate to people.”