It seems there is one in every family, with more than one child, that walks through my office door – a child who is academically successful, well-liked by peers, talented in the arts and/or athletics, mannerly, loves to help out, and voluntarily keeps a clean room. In family therapy circles, we often refer to this child as the “good child.” Of course, the good child is not the reason the family is seeking my help. That child is struggling in school, violating household rules, engaging in self-destructive behavior, and/or suffering from depression or anxiety. That child takes up a lot of his parents’ time, attention, and energy. That child spends time with Mom and Dad on the way to her therapy appointments and her tutor. Mom and Dad spend a lot of time worrying and talking about that child.
Recently, I began seeing one of those “good children” in therapy. Her parents had noticed that she was losing weight, spending too much time alone in her room, and allowing her grades to slip. Upon the insistence of the pediatrician, Mom had brought her to me for evaluation. In the initial session, Mom commented that she was not accustomed to worrying about Gretchen; Gretchen’s sister had an eating disorder and Gretchen had always been the easy daughter. To which Gretchen tearfully responded:
That’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong with me. Gretchen, age 12
This is the curse of the good/easy/healthy/well-adjusted/well-behaved child. For all the right reasons (see an earlier post, What’s Fair Anyway?), parents spend a lot of time and emotional energy on the child with the greatest needs at the moment. In most families, this is not always the same child, so over time, everything evens out. Maybe Mary has a lot of trouble navigating the tricky social dynamics of middle school so demands Mom’s ear on a nightly basis for a while. Then Martha’s Little League team makes the playoffs, so a lot of weekend time is devoted to practices and games. Just when that is over, Michael has to start going on college visits, so both parents are occupied with these trips. All the kids trust that Mom and Dad will be available when needed, and far more often than not, they are.
In families in which one child has more chronic and significant needs due to a psychiatric or medical illness or a developmental or learning disability, it may be harder for the siblings to count on the parents’ availability. Siblings see the worry, stress, and exhaustion their parents experience because of their brother or sister’s challenges. When this happens, kids often do one of three things. Some take the good child persona and run with it. They offer extra help around the house, they work extremely hard in school, they don’t ask for rides to the mall or baseball practice or for gifts for their birthdays, and they don’t complain when they are sick. It appears as if these kids are somehow trying to make up for the problems caused by the sibling; the greater the sibling’s needs at the moment, the harder this child works to be good.
Other “good children” simply seem to go about their lives as if everything at home were A-okay. They appear happy and well-adjusted. They are helpful but not overly helpful. They do fine in school but do not work exceedingly hard. These kids are resilient; they proceed along a healthy developmental trajectory despite the drama and upset in the household.
The third group does not fare as well as the first two. These children respond to their parents’ focus on their more challenging sibling by acting out or turning inward. They may quit trying in school, they may violate rules at home, they may engage in self-destructive behaviors. They make choices and engage in behaviors that demand that their parents pay attention to them. Sometimes, they will get into trouble at school or even with the police in order to make Mom and Dad notice that they are struggling.
These three groups are not static; siblings may move from one to the other and back again over time. This is exactly what happened with Gretchen. She had been in the first group for about as long as her older sister had been struggling with an eating disorder. Gretchen did so well in school and was so well-behaved there that her parents had begun declining the optional parent-teacher conferences. On her own, she had learned to cook simple meals and was often found in the kitchen with dinner well underway when her father came home from work and her mother and sister returned from therapy appointments. Gretchen had even started a campaign in her middle school to raise awareness about eating disorders.
And then, almost imperceptibly, something changed. Gretchen became less and less attentive to her school work. She spent less and less time in the common areas of the house, and she stopped cooking dinners altogether. When she began to push her food around her plate at meals, her parents assumed she was just going through some normal adolescent girl phase. It was only when she went to her well-child checkup and the pediatrician expressed alarm about a 10-pound weight loss (at a time when she should have been experiencing pre-pubertal weight gain) that her parents had to acknowledge that something was amiss. When I spoke to the pediatrician about Gretchen, he told me that he had to work pretty hard to get Mom to understand the gravity of the situation and that he had to insist she schedule an evaluation for her younger daughter.
Fortunately, Gretchen really was a pretty well-adjusted child. The troubles that brought her through my office door fell into the category of an “adjustment disorder” rather than serious psychopathology. As Gretchen was approaching adolescence, she needed more and more emotional connection with her mother, and her mother simply had her hands too full with the day-to-day challenges of parenting a daughter with an eating disorder. It wasn’t that Mom and Dad were unaware of the imbalance in the time and energy they put into their daughters; they were simply operating in survival mode. Gretchen knew from watching her sister that not eating and losing weight were sure ways to get her parents’ attention. And it worked. All of a sudden, Gretchen was seeing me weekly, and Mom and Dad were paying much closer attention to her eating habits. They were asking about her homework and encouraging her to help with dinner preparation.
All children in all families have different needs. If parents are lucky, they are able to meet most of the needs of all of the children most of the time. This will be harder at some times than at others, and no parents will always be successful. Here are some suggestions that should help:
- Maintain mindfulness. If parents find themselves talking about one child at length, they should at least check in with each other about all of the other children as well. It can be helpful to set a regular time aside to take care of the “business” of parenting and running a household. The agenda might include paying bills, reviewing the calendar of activities, and checking in about how each of the children is doing.
- Creative problem-solving is key when trying to balance the needs of children. One solution Gretchen and I came up with was that, instead of staying home alone and cooking dinner while her mom and sister went to therapy appointments, she would sometimes go along and hang out at Starbucks with Mom while her sister saw the therapist.
- In many instances, what is good for the more challenging child in a family is good for all the children. For example, if Tommy needs extra oversight with homework because of a learning difference, his parents can offer the same help to the other children as well. The siblings are likely to decline, but they will feel good knowing the assistance is available if needed. If Tammy needs to improve her nutrition because she has become overweight, it makes more sense to make healthy eating habits a family project rather than to focus exclusively on her.
- Keep in mind that a little individual time together goes a long way. At least once a day, at least one parent should make a point of checking in with each child, preferably in private. This might take place during the ride home from school or at bedtime when parents are saying goodnight. Mom might stop by a child’s bedroom during homework time or Dad might check in while getting help emptying the dishwasher. A simple “how are things going?” or “what’s new in your life?” will do. Depending on their age and inclination, children may say a lot or nothing at all. Either way, the parents have demonstrated interest and care and have provided an opportunity for connection.
- In families with a child with extraordinary needs, parents need to maintain extra effort to find balance. It is important to remember that there is a point of diminishing returns for the time and attention given to that child. A half hour spent with the “good child” may yield much greater returns than an additional half hour with the more challenging one.
- If there is a significant and unavoidable imbalance that will persist over time, parents can engage other caring adults to help. Perhaps Tammy can hang out with a beloved aunt while Mom is taking Tommy to tutoring. Maybe Mom and Dad can ask the school counselor to check in with their easier child periodically just so he has a source of additional emotional support if needed.
- If one child has significant emotional problems and/or acting out behaviors, it is essential to create an emergency plan. Ideally, this would involve sending the other child(ren) to an understanding neighbor’s house or calling a family member to pick them up and take them away from the disturbance.
- When in doubt about how well a child is coping with the challenges of having a sibling who requires extra parental support, parents can always consult a professional such as a school counselor or psychologist.
I have said before and I will always maintain that virtually all parents that I work with in therapy are loving, well-meaning individuals who are trying their very hardest to do right by their children. Parents are people too; they have limited time, energy, emotional stamina, and expertise as they do the difficult job of raising children. The job becomes that much more difficult when one or more of the children has ongoing emotional, behavioral, developmental, and/or medical needs.
In Gretchen’s case, her weight loss served as a needed wake-up call for Mom and Dad. They were able to make some minor but creative changes that made a big difference for their younger daughter. I ended up seeing Gretchen for a few months on a sporadic basis, and she ended therapy once she felt that she was getting the time and attention from Mom and Dad that she needed and her weight had normalized. When we ended therapy, I left Gretchen with this take-away message: You are a great kid. It is not your job to make things better for your parents or to be their “good child.” You do not need to be extra helpful, extra well-behaved, or extra happy. You just need to be who you are.
[Name and potentially identifying information have been changed.]