Good child syndrome

Rachel Burt Photography

By Adrienne Wood

So you’re worried about your strong-willed child, but did you ever spare a thought for your “good” child? 

Nisha came in the door quietly and placed her lunchbox neatly on the bench. Hanging her bag up she then tidily laid out all her homework on the table, ready to complete after she had eaten her afternoon snack.  

“Have you had a good day, Nisha?” asked her Mother as she handed her a samosa and a drink. Nisha nodded silently.  

She began eating but her eyes began to stray towards the carom board. She loved how she could flick her fingers and release the counters across the board. Watching her counter whack into and disperse the others gave her a rush. She often dreamed at night about successfully rounding up her opposition in a clean sweep, emerging the victor!  

Holding her samosa with her right hand over her plate at the table, she began to slowly twist and let her left hand stray towards the carom board behind her. Watching her mother cautiously out of the corner of her eye, she began toying with a carom piece, spinning it round and round. 

“Nisha!” said her mother sharply.  

Nisha quickly pulled back her hand and whirled to sitting upright at the table again. 

“You know you must not play with the carom board until after dinner, when all your homework has been done!” 

Nisha dropped her head. “Yes Ma. I’m sorry Ma,” she muttered penitently, but underneath the table her left hand made a fist and her stomach tightened into a knot.  

“I’m not hungry, Ma,” she muttered after a time and returned her food to the bench uneaten, meticulously wiping every crumb off the edge of her plate. 

What’s happening here? 

Nisha is holding her negative emotions in very tightly so as not to rock the boat with her mother, but it’s currently at the cost of a warm relationship with her, and it’s also taking its toll on her health. 

Good kid syndrome 

“Good” children work hard to keep their parents’ love and affection. They learn early on that “bad” behaviours such as shouting too loud, demanding their needs are met, or refusing to comply with directions all earn them their parents’ disapproval.

This can be a frightening feeling for a child given we are reliant on our parents to survive when we are young. 

So a “good” child takes all the parts of themselves that their parent disapproves of and they hide it. Parents reward this decision by giving their good child less negative attention than their more demanding siblings.  

Psychologist Gordon Neufeld calls this dynamic “The Cookie Cutter”. The child cuts themselves into a shape that allows the parent to only see the acceptable side of themselves. Within the cookie cutter are all the behaviours and attributes we as parents approve of. All the negative or big emotions they feel they can’t express are left outside of the “cookie”. 

What’s the problem?  

The problem with a cookie cutter approach is that it leaves our children with the belief that our acceptance of them is conditional on their behaviour. Pioneering psychologist and researcher Carl Rogers asked the question, “What happens when a parent’s love depends on how a child behaves?”. He found children who hide their unacceptable feelings end up with an internal sense of worthlessness and are at risk of poor mental health in later life. By enjoying the convenience of a “good child” we overlook the burden it places on the child at the expense of their current and future mental health. Some children go so far as to construct a “false self” that they operate from to please us and begin to lose track of the “real me” under all the disguise. It can take years of therapy to untangle the false identity from their true identity.  

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