The Good Kid Syndrome

This is a summary of a talk that I have given over the years called "The Good Kid Syndrome." I hope that you find it interesting and informative and that it will make you question some of the things that you say to your children. It discusses what, I believe, is the source of many of the mental health issues that we treat in therapy today. This would include not only individual issues and symptoms, but also major reasons for the interpersonal problems that cause what has become an alarmingly high divorce rate.

 

I've asked audiences, just as I ask you now, how many of you have said to your children "Be good?" I suppose it's a comment that, at one time or another, most parents have made to their children. It sounds innocuous, doesn't it? It's considered just a gentle reminder not to do anything wrong. It is certainly not meant to be a negative comment. Right? But, what do we really mean by "Be good"? Somehow the instruction implies that there is a list of behaviors that are considered to be good. These would generally include compliance, respectfulness, non aggressiveness, pleasing others, (just to list a few). If this is "good" behavior then the opposite must be "bad" behavior. Are these good or bad?


Disagreeing

             Questioning

                        Arguing

                                    Expressing frustration

                                                Anger


Is it good or bad if a child who is frustrated says, "I hate you.  You're a mean mommy or daddy!"


I've asked hundreds of people, if they have ever said, "I'm very glad that you could tell me that". Not one parent has ever said that he praised his child for expressing anger.  Most have rebuffed the child with comments like, "That's not nice!" or "Don't you speak to me like that!". The message to the child is clear:


Expressing anger is BAD!!!


The message that anger is bad is at the core of most of the issues that bring people into therapy today.

 

Let's consider something. What are the first two things that infants do when they are born? They breathe and express anger. The infant cries at the moment of birth because it is suddenly in a new environment where it experiences sounds and touches that are frightening and unfamiliar.  The first cry is anger. The first cry and the first breath happen at the same moment. Breathing and expressing anger are reflexive ... neither good nor bad.

 

We accept a child's breathing as natural, but what about his anger? Just like breathing, anger is something that we are born with. Do we accept anger in the same way that we accept breathing? Generally not. Unfortunately, we do not respond to our children's anger in the way that we expect and accept breathing. On the contrary, we give the message that anger, a natural part of life, is bad.

 

Giving the child the child the message that expressing anger is bad is the same as saying that breathing is bad. As bizarre as that might seem, the child would then feel that it is doing something wrong with every breath it takes.  I have never met a parent who said that breathing is bad, but I have met thousands like you who felt that expressing anger is bad. They consider a natural life function bad. But, just as we need to breathe, we need to express anger. We do not feel bad if we breathe, but we are taught that we are bad if we express anger.

 

This message is communicated to the child in a variety of ways ... usually in its first year. Early on, the child is introduced to the consequences of its expression of anger.  It might be yelled at or even hit. It might be rejected or it might be made to feel guilty for expressing its anger.  Whichever the parent's response, the child gets the message that anger is bad.


Anger is neither good nor bad. It just is.

 

Saying that a natural life function is bad will inevitably have a profound effect on the child.


Now, I ask you to consider the sun and the moon.  There are many differences between the two. When I have asked people to describe what they would consider to be the most significant differences, the responses are that one is bigger or one is smaller. Some say one comes out during the day while the other comes out at night.  They suggest that one is light and the other dark.  Actually the major significant difference is that the sun has its own internal source of heat and energy, but the moon is an inert mass of material floating in space that reflects the light of the sun. 

 

Let's use this metaphor to describe the infant. At the moment of birth, are we sun or moon? Many have said the infant is dependent on the parent and, therefore, it is moon. The reality is, however, that, at the moment of birth, the infant will respond totally from within itself. No one tells an infant when to cry. It does that purely from within itself.


We are born sun.

 

When the child learns early in life that anger, a natural part of its life, is bad, it must learn to conceal and bury something that was part of its sun side.  The child gets the message that what it feels, what it thinks, what it wants doesn't matter.  Now, the child must make a major sacrifice.  Since it cannot survive without the parent and since expressing its sun side is threatening and unacceptable to that parent, the child must relinquish the sun side of itself.  It will develop a set of antennae with which it will have to tune into the needs and demands and expectations of the parents. In other words, the child has given up its sun side and has become a moon child.


Now, let's relate this to the "Good Kids".

 

"Good kids" are generally moon children. They become super attentive to what is expected of them. They need to be liked, admired and praised. They learn to be charming, ingratiating and pleasing. They are generally very responsive to the needs of those about them. They do the "right" thing and try not to make waves. They try to be good students, athletes and hard workers in order to get the praise of others. They need constant reassurance that they are "good kids".

 

There is one very, very big problem, however. Giving up the sun side of itself and becoming a "good kid-moon child" comes with a heavy price. The child must sacrifice its ability to retain a connection with itself. Because of his fear of disapproval and possible rejection, the child focuses on the demands and expectations of parents, teachers, and friends at the cost of any awareness of itself. It disregards or denies its own feelings.

 

Since many of its own feelings, especially anger, have been labeled "bad", recognizing these feelings and expressing them becomes too threatening. The child must bury its true "sun" feelings and hide behind a mask. The expression "put on a happy face" describes the situation that a "good kid" faces. On the outside, the child appears happy and content, while, inside, the child feels angry, alone and unfulfilled.  The good kid is now in a position where it feels phony, insincere and guilty.

 

Another price paid by the "good kid" is that their self image, instead of emerging from the sun side, is now completely dependent on how they are perceived by others.  They are totally unable to appreciate their own accomplishments unless they are recognized by others.  Their self image is predicated on how others view them. 

 

An example of this is seen in the hypothetical case of two fourth grade boys who are handed their report cards. Both boys receive straight A's. The sun child looks at his card and returns to his seat, beaming. The moon child, when handed his card, is expressionless. Both boys leave the school bus and are met by their mothers.  The sun child runs to his mother and shows her the report card. She beams and he continues beaming. The moon child walks to his mother and shows her his report card. Only when she smile does he break into a smile. What is the difference in the children? The sun child is able to appreciate and enjoy his accomplishments. His mother's reaction only reinforces it. The moon child seems to feel very little until his mother reacts happily. Only then does he experience any joy.

 

"Good kid-moon children" are also vulnerable on another level. As sensitive as they are to praise, they are equally sensitive to criticism. They experience criticism as non- acceptance and rejection. They will often interpret the absence of praise as criticism.

 

Since they are not able to rely on their own feelings and intuition, they rely totally on the opinions and judgment of others. Therefore a negative reaction from someone else devastates them.

 

Unfortunately, "good kids" are often self-critical and need constant affirmation or approval in an attempt to dispel that self criticism.

 

As you can see, the "good kid" makes many sacrifices in order to maintain their image... the appearance of being a "good kid." Some of the more serious consequences are related to the effects of the anger which must be repressed.

 

As the laws of physics say, "Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It just changes form." The anger does not disappear. If it cannot be expressed directly, it will alter its direction. It can either be acted out or internalized.

 

Internalized anger is the basis for most problems which bring people into therapy. The number one mental health problem in the United States today is depression. The generally accepted definition of depression is "anger turned inward". Think of all the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on anti-depression medication. This type of medication does not deal with the cause of the depression. It merely is an attempt to control it.

 

Another manifestation of internalized anger can be the development of psychosomatic illnesses. Many ailments such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and headaches are frequently anger based. I have successfully treated many patients referred to me by their physicians for psychosomatic ailments. As patients learn to deal with their anger directly, there is a significant reduction in their symptoms.

 

It is my belief, after years of experience treating children, that under-achievement in school is related in no small part to internalized anger. The "good kid" could not refuse to go to school so he went to class where he shut down. It's as if he were saying, "You can have my body but you don't have my head." As these kids, through therapy, learned to deal with anger more openly, their grades tended to improve significantly.

 

Lastly, a major motivation for seeking therapy, specifically phobias, is totally related to built up anger. In my article on phobias, you can see the step by step process by which unexpressed anger converts to phobias. Not all anger converts to phobias, but all phobias result from built up anger.

 

I have discussed some of the directions internalized anger might take. Now, let's take a look at what happens to externalized (but indirectly expressed) anger. Since the direct expression of anger is not compatible with the image of the "good kid," the child will have to deal with his anger indirectly. "Good kids" are often actors. On the outside, they are pleasing, agreeable, conforming. Inside, however, they are often sneaky. They may lie, cheat, steal, act out sexually, do drugs and/or drink. In other words, they are phony.

Forced into wearing a mask to present the "good kid" face to the world ... forced to bury their anger ... they pay a huge price.

 

The phony "good kid" often feels guilty about his dishonesty. There are two results related to this guilt. First, since we learn early on that when we do something wrong we are going to be punished, the good kid expects to be caught and punished. Often, they unconsciously set themselves up to be caught as a way of relieving themselves of their guilt.

 

Another manifestation of guilt is the inability to accept praise. Guilt-ridden children, as much as they seek praise, seem surprisingly incapable of accepting it. They don't believe it because they feel they don't deserve it. They think, "If you only knew what I am really like, you wouldn't be saying nice things about me."

 

***

 

The talks about the Good Kid Syndrome were meant to increase parents' awareness of the destructive implications of labeling a natural life function as "bad".

 

I remember concluding a talk one time with the comment, "You people go on telling your children to 'be good' and you will keep shrinks like me in practice forever so, I thank you for a good income and good night!" The impact this had on the parents I was addressing was eye opening.

 

I hope that it affects you equally.


copyright 2007 - Dr. Gerard Bomse - All Rights Reserved - duplication and re-publishing prohibited without consent from Dr. Bomse (drbomse-at-gmail.com)

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