Overcoming The "Good Child" Syndrome*

Al Siebert, PhD

A major barrier to developing strong resiliency skills comes from being trained to be a "good boy" or a "good girl." The basis for most "good child" messages comes from what parents do not want their children to become. Everyone knows about people who cause problems and drain energy from others when they:

  • complain all the time
  • hurt others
  • act in highly selfish ways
  • lie, cheat, and steal
  • feel and act superior to everyone else
  • refuse to cooperate

Parents who raise children to not be "bad" boys and girls erroneously think the way for their child to grow up to be a good person is to prohibit all "bad" ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. They use "bad" people as anti-models and try to raise their children to be the opposite.

Parents believe that a "good child" is one who is:

  • not complaining
  • not angry
  • not selfish
  • not dishonest
  • not self-centered or prideful
  • not rebellious

Because perception always requires contrasts, most parents point out to their children what bad boys and girls are like. The following list is typical of the "bad child" messages a child hears. "Bad kids":

  • fight
  • are dirty
  • cheat
  • skip school
  • are noisy
  • swear
  • sass back
  • lie

Children hear these statements about what a "good" boy or girl shouldn't do, and learn that it is extremely important to cooperate in trying to be good and not to be bad. A powerful instruction that makes them cautious and vulnerable all their lives is the statement "What will others think?"

In some cases this childhood personality theory that people are either "good" or "bad" continues into adult life. At the age of 43 the person still thinks and acts like the child they were conditioned to be at age 5.

In their relationships they give many clues about how good they are. Typical actions of a "good" child trying to function in an adult body include:

  • smile when upset.
  • rarely let you know they are angry at you.
  • seldom make selfish requests.
  • point out your faults, saying "I'm only telling you for your own good."
  • give "should" instructions to others.
  • get upset with you and then say "You really hurt me."
  • smile and compliment people to their faces but say critical things behind their backs.
  • alert and warn others about "bad" people.
  • cannot accept compliments easily or agree they are good at something.
  • when confronted about something hurtful they said, they emphasize their good intentions by saying, "But I meant well."
  • fear being regarded as hurtful, tough, selfish, insensitive, or uncaring.
  • The "good child" will not express criticism directly. In group meetings they will smile and agree with the manager. When asked to express a contrary opinion, they are unable to do so. After the meeting is over, however, they may become very critical.

Being a pleasant, helpful, good person to have around is a commendable way to live. At the extreme, however, "good children" in an adult world can drain energy out of others and be difficult to live and work with in the following ways:

  • They do not give you useful feedback. Even when you ask them to express their feelings directly to you instead of talking behind your back, they won't. While it may be obvious to you that they feel angry or upset, they often cannot admit that they are. If they do admit to being upset, they have a victim reaction. They blame you for causing them to have the unhappy feelings they experience. If you were supposed to telephone and did not, you may be told, "You really hurt me when you didn't call."

  • They are self-deceptive. They believe their efforts to help others are completely unselfish. For example, when a woman asked me for advice on how to get her husband to stop being so negative, I asked, "Why are you working so hard to change him?"

    "It's for his own good," she said. "He would be so much happier."

    The nature of the "good" person's self-deception is such that they can act in ways harmful to you, while truly believing they are doing so for your own good. The combination of sweetness in your presence, destructive criticism behind your back, and a belief that their actions are for your own good is behind the statement, "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

  • Their efforts to make others have only good feelings about them, often cause the opposite reaction to occur—such as when they try to force you to eat some candy or cake. Then, when they sense some irritation or dislike, they work even harder to get the reassurances from others that they need. Their efforts then cause stronger negative reactions, which leads to them trying harder—and so on. Instead of doing something different when their actions do not work, they do more of what elicited the negative reaction in the first place. The pity of it all is that they have not learned they would be more likable if they stopped trying so hard to be liked.

  • There is a hidden threat under their efforts to make you see them as "good." If you react negatively to their ways of trying to control what others think and feel about them, they may decide you are a "bad" person and punish you. The dynamic is this: Victims need victimizers; victimizers deserve to be punished. This is why you run the risk of becoming a target for their destructive gossip and emotional abuse if you do not let them coerce you into expressing only those feelings for them that they need to hear.

  • They avoid empathy. They become slippery when you try to discuss an upsetting incident with them. In their way of thinking, some things they say don't count. They may send you reeling with a sudden accusation. After thinking about the incident you see how much they misunderstood. You may bring up the incident, ready to discuss it, but they say "I don't remember saying that" or they give themselves a quick excuse. They judge themselves by their intentions, not by how they affect others.

  • They have mastered the art of being emotionally fragile. No matter how carefully you try to find a way to get them to listen, have empathy, or observe themselves, they will find a way to become upset. Then they try to make you feel guilty for upsetting them.

  • In work settings this individual is very difficult to give a performance evaluation to. Almost any effort to talk about doing better work, or getting along better with others, or being more direct in making requests triggers a defensive reaction. A "good" person may say, "Why are you picking on me? I'm not a bad person. Why don't you criticize Sheila? She's worse than I am." Their reaction to your effort to make things better is to make you feel guilty for bringing up the subject of how they might improve.

  • The "good person" cannot distinguish between constructive and destructive criticism. They react to unpleasant feedback as though it is destructive and has a harmful intent. They believe that if you really care for them you will not confront them about their upsetting actions. That is much different from a person with a survivor style who believes that if you care for them you will confront them about their upsetting actions. The consequence is that they learn very little from experience. That is why a "good" person remains at the emotional level of a child throughout life.

  • They feel unloved and unappreciated. Even though you give them lots of love and attention, they experience very little. They are like a person standing under a waterfall yelling "I am thirsty!" Some typical statements: "After all I've done for them..." and "They'll feel sorry when I'm gone."

  • They are self-made martyrs. First they blame you for their suffering, then they forgive you for all the hurt and pain you have caused them. As incredible as it may seem, the "good child" feels emotionally and morally superior to you.

  • Confronting them makes things worse. If you get fed up and confront them about their victim style they will have a victim reaction much worse than you've seen before. They cannot handle a confrontation about what they do because the victim style is the best that they can manage. As with any child, they have almost no capacity for self-observation or for conscious choices about thinking, feeling, or acting in different ways.

Thus it is that the "good child" syndrome undercuts survivor resiliency. There is a serious flaw in their training. A person raised to be a good child is emotionally handicapped outside the structured environment they were raised in. Such a person does not learn from experience, suppresses paradoxical traits, avoids empathy, and has a desynergistic affect on others. Although they mean well, this not a person you want to have in charge of something important.

What To Do

There is nothing "bad," of course, about a person who tries to control others by getting upset. The question is, what can one do to be less vulnerable and less drained by someone who plays "good child" games? One possibility is to accept the situation as it is. Decide to play "Let's Pretend" and just do it. Another option is to view the situation as a learning opportunity for yourself. What is to be learned? For one thing, you can stop allowing yourself to feel victimized by their victim style. Do you keep thinking to yourself that things would be so much better if only this person would change? If so, you are reacting to their victim/blaming style with a victim/blaming reaction instead of a learning/coping reaction.

How can you react differently? Stop trying to get them to have empathy or observe themselves. Stop spending hours trying to think up ways to get them to understand. Simply tell the person how you feel at each moment in response to what they have just said or done.

When you are accused of not caring or wanting to hurt them, try saying "You're wrong," "It's too bad you let your mind think that way," or "You have it backwards." Then be quiet. Do not explain your statement. Stop allowing them to avoid responsibility for the energy draining effects of what they do and say.

Try shifting to a different level of communication. Realize that words will not work with such a person, any more than words can get a person addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling to change. Experiment with actions that will make them aware of the consequences of their behavior.

Be quick to praise improvement or any change for the better. Giving up an old way of doing things is easier when there are immediate rewards.

Uncovering Hidden Barriers to Change

Perception is based on contrast. Those who want to be seen as "good," need to create a contrast for themselves by portraying others as "bad" or defective in some way. The husband or wife who constantly cares for, covers up for, and forgives their alcoholic spouse, is often seen by close friends as "a saint." This forgiving and loving person receives admiration and respect for bearing such a huge burden in life with unselfish dedication.

A less extreme but similar pattern is found in the way that some women get together and complain "ain't men awful." It is a sort of bragging about how much they suffer because of the men in their lives. As with all repeated actions, there are benefits to the shared suffering. They experience close emotional intimacy with each other, closer often than with their partners. This activity helps explain why many men keep getting bad performance evaluations from their partners and cannot get an accurate job description. Their partners need fresh material for the next meeting.

There are many hidden barriers working against those changing from being co-dependent or feeling like victims. To change would mean to:

  • give up the negative frame of reference upon which their identity is based;
  • lose a main source of esteem and appreciation from others; and
  • appear to be tough, insensitive, and uncaring if they take a stand against the addicted person-that is, to seem like what children are told are signs of a "bad" person.

What may seem to be simple or easy changes for a person with survivor personality qualities, feels emotionally insurmountable to the "good" person because this person has a constructed personality, not a discovered personality.

Breaking Free from Prohibitions: Difficult but Possible

It is important to recognize that the "good child" co-dependent pattern was functional during childhood. It was a way of surviving. It was the best the vulnerable child could do in a very difficult situation, and it worked at that time.

The challenge for someone raised to be a "good" boy or girl is to develop new, additional ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. To do so requires courage because it means stepping outside the artificial shell of "goodness" into risky, even frightening territory.

Anyone trying to act like a good child is vulnerable to be overwhelmed when faced with challenges beyond the capacities of the act they were trained to perform. This is why "good," well-behaved, white, middle-class young people, when faced with real world problems, are so vulnerable to cults. After years of being praised for good conduct in school, it feels familiar to again sit passively in uncomfortable chairs without being allowed to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water until given permission. It feels familiar to passively sit and listen to an authoritative person tell them how to think, feel, and act in order to be a new kind of good noun.

Survivor resiliency, in contrast, is not a way of being that can be learned from someone else. It is not a consciously constructed new act designed to replace an old one. Rather, it is the emergence of innate abilities made possible by learning from experience. It is self-discovered, not taught. It unfolds from within as emotionally constricting prohibitions are loosened. The good child syndrome is to act as a good noun should, while the survivor style is to interact according to the effects of what one does.

Overcoming "Good Child" training is not easy, however, because to be more flexible often requires counter-balancing a "good" feeling or action with one that may have been labeled as "bad." For people raised to be "good," developing a resiliency usually requires learning to sometimes be negative, selfish, angry, and self-appreciating. The best starting place is found in guidelines for developing strong inner "selfs."

* Adapted from "The Good Child Handicap", chapter 6 in
The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert, PhD
Copyright © 1996, 2007, 2010 Practical Psychology Press

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