The Hidden Dangers of Compliant Kids – Part 1

Should you be concerned about your under-the-radar, easy-going child?

Most families have a child who is naturally more intense and challenging, and another who is naturally more compliant. Over time those characteristics can become exaggerated as kids’ roles in the family begin to build their identity. Parents often ask us about those “squeaky wheel” (defiant, tantrum throwing, strong-willed) kids, and rarely (if ever) ask about their easy-to-raise siblings. It’s time to give those kids who fly under the radar some much-needed attention.

Eleven-year-old Cate was always sweet and compliant, a hard worker and did well in school.  She was the kind of kid who makes life easy for parents but can go unseen with her struggles. She was a regular observer of her sister Ashley’s frequent, dramatic screaming outbursts aimed at Leah and Kevin, the girls’ parents. Everyone knew what was on Ashley’s mind because it came flying out as an unfiltered verbal barrage, bouncing from gregarious to hilarious to furious! During a parent coaching session, Leah realized the possible impact on Cate who was often still in the room after her sister would storm off. “Oh, I can imagine what she feels when she watches us roll our eyes, sigh and talk about how frustrating Ashley is. Cate is terrified to have us talk about her like that when she’s gone.”

Leah and Kevin were concerned that there was a lot going on under the surface with Cate, so Leah set aside some special time away to connect with her. Over dinner after plenty of safe small talk, Leah gently asked, ”Cate, do you ever feel like you have to hold the family together?” Although Cate couldn’t articulate her emotions, a couple of tears ran down her cheeks, each an overflow of the stress and anxiety she was feeling.

Compliant kids can easily feel like they are overlooked when it comes to support and concern from their parents…especially if there is an intense child in the family.

You certainly might have a truly happy and easy-going child (lucky you!). But you also might have a child who is unable to express significant internal struggles and really needs your guidance. How can you tell if your compliant child is really struggling?

Do any of these descriptions (or combination of) seem to fit your compliant child?  

People pleaser
“I’ll be who people want me to be.” Our son Noah struggled with this because he watched Daniel give us fits and thought, “That’s so stupid! Why does he do that?” Noah was eager to avoid conflict and earn our approval (Whew, finally… an easy kid!). Unfortunately, we built identity around this as we nicknamed him, “JoyBoy”,  “Sunshine in Skin” and described him as “the grease in our Jackson cogs.” Over time we realized this affirmation had a downside of burdensome expectations. When making these types of statements, parents may inadvertently communicate, “You belong and have a place in this family when you make my life easier.”

Perfectionistic
A people pleaser personality may escalate into a struggle with perfectionism. This child might be saying, “The best way to make sure people never feel aggravated by me is to work hard to figure out what others expect and perfectly meet those expectations!” Perfectionism feeds on the drive to avoid negative evaluation or feedback. This may cause kids to be fragile and afraid to fail or take risks. Perfectionistic kids also often have a difficult time accepting compliments, because they lack confidence and feel they really don’t deserve the affirmation.

Anxious in conflict with excessive peacekeeping.
This may spring from a belief that conflict is bad and means “I’m bad”, causing kids to want to do whatever they can to subdue it. One mom wrote, “Our daughter struggles with her self-identity and often gives in and apologizes even when something isn’t her fault.” Kids may simply avoid conflict by withdrawing to their toys, art, music, screens, books, pets, etc.

Suppresses feelings and needs
This can be caused by lots of factors. Kids may not express what they want and how they feel because they are afraid of the rejection that could come with sharing difficult feelings. In highly stressed families, it can feel to kids that there isn’t the safety to share. Or they haven’t been taught how to share their feelings. These kids may want to avoid stressing their already stressed parents. When things cool down a child may feel more comfortable sharing (if they’ve been given the tools to do so). In one family, when a very challenging child began to do better, her easy-going brother shared that he was experiencing serious depression. Thankfully he was able to express his deep feelings and needs while he was still in high school and living at home.

Judgmental/Self-righteous
The compliant child may think in concrete or black and white terms (good kid/bad kid thinking) and make judging comments about others who have less stellar behavior than themselves. These kids may not even see themselves as needing God’s forgiveness and grace.

Resentful
Compliant kids may be resentful that they work so hard to be good, but their sibling steals their parents’ attention and always seems to get away with more. This can lead to a preoccupation with fairness and getting what they think they deserve. They might even be happy when the difficult sibling gets in trouble. Or attempt to “even-the-score” by trying to sabotage their challenging sibling’s positive progress.

May not feel as loved
If a compliant child misses getting attention and consideration for their needs, they may feel less loved. In late grade school Noah expressed that he didn’t feel as loved as Daniel and Bethany, his much more attention-demanding siblings. We hadn’t communicated love in a way that fully met his needs.

Anxious when others do better
If a sibling’s difficult behavior improves and their negative role fades, the compliant child becomes less “shiny” by comparison. A child that has built their identity on being better than their challenging brother or sister can become quite unsettled by this shift, and may even trade places with that sibling in the family dynamics.  In coaching families, I’ve seen this “changing roles” phenomena occur numerous times. In one really obvious example, a previously compliant, easy-going older sister began to regularly be upset and emotional at bedtime after her difficult brother started to pop into bed cheerfully. “I’m starting to act like Josh used to!” she cried one evening.

If your child has very few of these symptoms, you probably have a genuinely good-natured, easy-going child. But if you do see a number of these characteristics, it deserves a deeper look. While I can’t point to research, my years of experience suggest that the greater the stress in the home, or the internal anxiety of the child, the greater the likelihood of unhealthy compliance.

Why could this dynamic of compliant kids be a problem?

You might want to say, “Seriously, I just need a break! What could possibly be the downside of having an easy child?” Here are a few ideas to get you thinking.

  • It’s not uncommon for the compliant child to decide they’ve had enough of the hard work and low payoff of being easy and choose to openly rebel. The older, previously-compliant sister of a wildly tantruming preschooler rebelled so strongly during middle school, her mom said, “I wasn’t sure our family would survive that challenge.”
  • When compliant kids finally leave home they may transfer their compliance to controlling friends or partners. We’ve heard from people who had been compliant until they left home and then slipped into addiction, poor choices, or unhealthy/abusive relationships. Years of suppressed hurt and resentment, combined with a lack of solid identity and an unwise peer group is a dangerous combination.
  • Compliant kids may be more likely to be bullied by their peers.

If any of the compliant child descriptions in this article sound familiar, consider:

  • What might I have done to feed this dynamic in my child?
  • What beliefs and perspectives does my child need to support a healthier sense of self?
  • What do I want to do differently?

We have not given you the “quick-fix” answer here but the above questions are important to think about. Over the next few days consider the dynamic in your family. Do you have a compliant child? In the second part of this two-part series, we’ll give you some practical ideas to supplement your insights, and share the ending to Cate and Noah’s stories.  

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article.  Coming soon!


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