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The Excessively Compliant Child

Most adoptive parents know that adopted children can have issues with acting out and testing boundaries and aren’t surprised if it happens in their family as well. And if they have an extremely compliant, well-behaved child, they may congratulate themselves on having dodged a bullet.

However, hyper-compliance and extreme defiance are two sides of the same coin. They both arise from feelings of anxiety and ambivalence towards the parents.

The hyper-compliant child fears that this family will abandon him/her, just as his previous one did. The way for him/her to guard against this disruption is to do everything to please the adoptive parents, even if it means neglecting his/her own needs and desires. The testing child, similarly, is afraid of being abandoned again and is constantly pushing boundaries to see how bad he/she has to be before the adoptive parents abandon him.

There are a lot of helpful sites and books for how to deal with children who are exhibiting externalizing behaviors (acting out), for example with irritability, defiance, rage and aggression, or internalizing behaviors (acting in), for example by withdrawing, crying, sadness and depression.  However, the excessively compliant child is often not recognized as having a problem.

It can be a challenge to figure out ways to help your compliant child know what he/she wants for him/herself, instead of focusing on pleasing others. Some things to consider:

  1. Be aware of when you are putting her in situations, where she has to follow your direction without expressing hers.
  2. Help her cultivate her own opinions
  3. Encourage her to push for her own choices and give her choices as much as possible.
  4. Help her strategize to assert herself in other situations, for example at school.
  5. Show her you will always be there for her and that she can trust you to not abandon her if she misbehaves, in other words, encourage secure attachment.
  6. As she gets older, make sure she is taking part in activities or choosing subjects because it really interests her, and not just to please others.
  7. Remember, it is healthy for the child to feel secure enough to act out against you sometimes.  Don’t allow hyper-compliant behavior to persist just because it is easier for you!


  1. Book: “The Connected Child” – Karyn Purvis, David Cross and Wendy Sunshine (2007)
  2. Book: “The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child” – Nancy Verrier (1993)
  3. “Raising assertive kids” (psychcentral.com)

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