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The “Good Child” Syndrome

By Al Siebert, PhD
It Starts Early
A major barrier to developing excellent resiliency comes from being raised 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:
r complain all the time
r hurt others
r act in highly selfish ways
r lie, cheat, and steal
r feel and act superior to everyone else
r refuse to cooperate

Parents who raise children to not be “bad” boys and girls erroneously think they must prohibit all traces
of 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:
r not negative
r not angry
r not selfish
r not dishonest
r not self-centered or prideful
r 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.”
r fight r are noisy
r are dirty r swear
r cheat r sass back
r skip school r 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:
r smile when upset.
r rarely let you know they are angry at you.
r seldom make selfish requests.
r point out your faults, saying “I’m only telling you for your own good.”
r give “should” instructions to others.
r get upset with you and then say “You really hurt me.”
r smile and compliment people to their faces but say critical things behind their backs.
r alert and warn others about “bad” people.
r cannot accept compliments easily or agree they are good at something.
r when confronted about something hurtful they said, they emphasize their good intentions by saying,
“But I meant well.”
r fear being regarded as hurtful, tough, selfish, insensitive, or uncaring.

© Copyright 2005, Al Siebert, PhD • www.ResiliencyCenter.com /4


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:
r 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.”
r 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?”
r 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.
r 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.
r 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.
r 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.
r 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

© Copyright 2005, Al Siebert, PhD • www.ResiliencyCenter.com /4


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.
r 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.”
r 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.
r 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

© Copyright 2005, Al Siebert, PhD • www.ResiliencyCenter.com /4


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:
r give up the negative frame of reference upon which their identity is based;
r lose a main source of esteem and appreciation from others; and
r 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 be more negative, selfish, angry,
and self-appreciating. The best starting place is found in guidelines for developing strong inner “selfs.”

Adapted from Chapter 6, The Survivor Personality, by Al Siebert, PhD


© Copyright 2005, Al Siebert, PhD • www.ResiliencyCenter.com