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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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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, Al Siebert, PhD

The Resiliency Center was founded by the late Al Siebert who studied highly resilient survivors for over fifty years. He authored the award-winning book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher's Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life's Difficulties...and How You Can Be, Too.

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