People-pleasing behavior is fraught with many emotional land mines: resentment, exhaustion, losing touch with our needs, seeking to be liked while giving up our desires and dreams, repressing emotions, and the impossible task of keeping everyone happy (to name just a few). Every parent I’ve worked with who identifies themselves as people-pleasers asks, “what can I do to ensure that my child doesn’t become a people pleaser like me?” I’ve never met any parent who aspires to raise compliant pleasers.
Is Your Parenting Unintentionally Encouraging People-Pleasing in Your Children?
Every behavior serves a function. Often people-pleasing is a means to being liked or accepted and avoid conflict or rejection. We’ve all heard the sayings, “Don’t rock the boat,” or “Don’t upset the applecart,” or “Don’t ruffle their feathers.” Many of us grew up hearing these idioms—and some people actually accepted them! But at what cost do we walk on eggshells to prevent upsetting the apple cart?
Conflict is a natural part of life. And parenting kids brings plenty of opportunities for conflict in daily life. Of course, it’s natural for you to want your child to listen and cooperate, and it can be exhausting when they don’t! However, every time we coerce, bribe, or overpower a child, we teach them to comply without considering themselves. Even when our behavior is unintentional, it still affects our children. For example, you may be stressed or in a hurry, so you react harshly in the moment, forgetting your long-term values and vision for your children. No matter how innocent, a parent’s responses over time can unknowingly give wrong messages and train a child to be submissive.
Ways that Increase People-Pleasing in Children
Here are a few ways that increase the likelihood of your children becoming pleasers:
- Minimizing your child’s emotions
- Saying no automatically without considering their requests
- Using guilt, shame, or punishment to coerce and control them
- Giving up your own needs, resenting it, and then taking it out on your children
- Getting angry with their behavior frequently
- Rewarding them for being compliant
- Making them feel “bad” for disagreeing
Parents also desire their children to develop healthy self-esteem. Yet, each time we yell, shame, or criticize a child, we make it near impossible for them to be true to themselves. Why? Because they’re too busy trying to figure out how to be loved or keep their parents happy.
And parental responses, when repeated, set the groundwork for budding people pleasers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a child should always get their way. In fact, parental boundaries and receiving no is vital for healthy child development. However, my belief is that parents and children can work together to find ways for everyone’s needs and desires to be met and honored most of the time. Then, when it’s not possible, and we must set a healthy boundary (e.g. safety guidelines around water for a preschooler or curfews for teens), they are more likely to understand and cooperate because they have felt heard and understood consistently.
So how do we safeguard children’s self-esteem and teach them how to advocate for themselves while respecting boundaries and the rights of others?
Enlightened selfishness is the answer—and a remarkable quality. We need self-first-ness to act on our own behalf with clarity, pursue what is important to us, discover and speak our truth, and passionately live our lives while also respecting and loving others. These ingredients create an effective model to impart to our children.
In the article, People-Pleasing: the Hidden Dangers of Always Being Too Nice, the author states: “at first, people-pleasing might come across as a selfless act. Butpeople-pleasing is actually a selfish actbecause you’re trying to control someone else’s reaction towards you by behaving in a certain way. In fact, people-pleasing is more about the desire to be in control than it is to please other people. Wanting to be liked by others is just a symptom of the desire to be in control because deep down you feel powerless or worthless. This is why people-pleasing is so exhausting—it goes against the flow of life, and takes so much effort to maintain.”
Related reading: "Being a People Pleaser Does Not Make You Kind."
If you agree that you want your child to grow up with healthy self-esteem, people-pleasing is not part of the recipe.
Emotional Intelligence Requires Feeling Fully
To become a free-thinking individual who gives from their heart without resentment, they must first know themselves (and yes, be a little selfish!) before habitually making others happy.
However, the ways we reinforce people-pleasing is often imperceptible. For example, a couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with a teacher expressing how proud she was of three boys in her class. Their school had organized a 5K run, and during the race, the fastest boys slowed way down to run with the slower kids so they wouldn’t feel inadequate or embarrassed. Now, at first glance, this altruistic action might seem gracious and thoughtful. However, these boys gave up their best, limited their athletic ability, and did not pursue the victory to take care of their classmates’ feelings.
Yes, it’s important to be kind, but was it kind to the boys who sacrificed what was good for them? And is an action kind if it isn’t kind to everyone involved?
These boys were taking responsibility for protecting other children from feeling uncomfortable feelings. Yet, one of the most crucial aspects of emotional intelligence and resilience is learning how to successfully navigate discomfort or disappointment and find ways to excel with our strengths.
Think about it for a moment. If everyone slowed down, dulled their skills and abilities, or didn’t even try for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, our world could likely miss out on the best in scientific breakthroughs, innovation, technology, and every field of endeavor.
We can care and support others’ feelings, but ultimately emotions are the responsibility of each person. We cannot avoid what is, and we need people leading the way and inspiring us to know what’s possible by exerting their best effort and utilizing their skills and talents.
Teaching children emotional intelligence begins with allowing them to feel the full spectrum of emotions. One of the reasons people engage in people-pleasing behaviors is because they don’t know how to regulate their own uncomfortable feelings in reaction to conflict or another person being upset.
Subtle, Common Parenting Mistakes that Encourage People-Pleasing
Let’s look deeper at three common and often hidden parenting mistakes that can backfire, encourage submissive compliance, and reinforce people-pleasing behavior for impressionable young minds.
Parenting Mistake #1: Denying or Invalidating a Child’s Experiences
Parents unknowingly deny their child’s experience by saying things like, “You’re overreacting!” “That’s ridiculous!” “Stop crying!” “I can’t believe that you acted that way!” “You should know better than to react like that!”
Imagine you’re the one upset about something that happened at work, and you’re sharing the experience with a friend or your spouse. Try on each of the responses above and see how you feel.
Unheard? Invalidated? Yup!
Even though we might express our frustration without the intention of invalidating our children’s experience, it can still negatively impact our children’s perception of themselves and their place in the world.
One of the most vital cornerstones of teaching children emotion regulation is through validating their experience. When we feel heard and understood as children, we learn to trust our own experience. And we have to learn to trust the validity of our emotions, needs, wants, etc., if we are to not sacrifice ourselves in service of pleasing others.
Parenting Mistake #2: Seeking to Get Your Child to See Others’ Perspective Too Quickly.
Another way we invalidate our child’s experience is by trying to get our child to see another’s perspective too quickly.
Suppose your child or teen comes home and shares with you a difficult experience about another student at school or summer camp. In an attempt to help your child feel better, you might try to get them to see the other child’s perspective. Although well-intentioned, when you jump in and take the other child’s side right away, there are two possible downsides to this oversight. First, your child will likely interpret your response to mean that you think the other person’s feelings, needs, and experience are more important than theirs (not at all what you intended, right?). And secondly, this approach inadvertently teaches your child to think of others’ feelings before their own. And particularly for more sensitive children, it’s an easy leap for them to become more concerned about others’ feelings and deny their feelings altogether (again, probably not what you were hoping for).
It’s completely understandable wanting to help your child see another’s perspective. However, when you respond in this way, your strategy marginalizes their feelings and experience. Why? Because their first responsibility IS to feel their own emotions fully! And then to regulate and care for themselves. Our kindness and consideration of others are most genuine and compassionate when we also consider ourselves.
One of our jobs as parents is to ensure that our child doesn’t deny their feelings. It’s our responsibility to help them process big experiences, so they build a healthy relationship with their emotions, and their emotional development isn’t thwarted.
Parenting Mistake #3: Efficiency mode.
Let’s face it. Being a parent can be stressful, especially when both parents are working or you’re raising a child as a single parent. Or maybe you have a complex, blended family that demands every ounce of energy to navigate.
When we feel stressed with life or overwhelmed in our role as a parent, we often move to efficiency mode. We don’t have the time or bandwidth to slow down, truly listen, and be present for our children. Instead, we solve their problems to efficiently move on to the next task on our never-ending to-do list.
Before we dive into how our relationship and parenting effectiveness suffer from efficiency, let’s define efficiency.
Typically, when we try to be more efficient, we’re looking to makes our actions and outcomes easier, requiring less time and effort. The Oxford dictionary describes efficiency as “the quality of doing something well with no waste of time or money.”
The American Economist, Herbert A. Simon states in an essay,
“Because economic costs are typically easier to measure than social costs, efficiency can actually result in an escalation of social costs. Making a factory or a school more efficient is easy, so long as you don’t care about the air polluted or minds turned off to learning…. In a nutshell, we are efficient when we eat fast food instead of good food.”
And if we eat fast food regularly, we pay health consequences. When we parent “efficiently,” it causes impairment in our relationship with our child, which will unavoidably inhibit their socioemotional development. So what does efficiency look like in parenting?
Here are some examples:
- Carrying a toddler who knows how to walk because you’re in a hurry or to prevent them from inconvenient exploration.
COST: Denies them an opportunity to practice gross motor skills, limits independence, and encourages passivity
- Talking for or finishing sentences for young children, especially those who are a little shy or slower to complete sentences.
COST: Child misses opportunities to practice verbal and social skills and may interpret parents’ interruption as not valuing what they have to say
- Doing your child’s chores for them and making excuses for them instead of requiring them to contribute to the family.
COST: Child misses out on opportunities to generate positive emotions through contributing to the “community” good and/or is denied opportunities to practice skills and doing something that is important even though it may not be enjoyable (i.e. self-discipline).
- Your child waits until the last minute to start a science project. You don’t want them staying up late, so you do one for them (or finish the one they started).
COST: When we bail our children out, they don’t have consequences that teach them to manage their time better.
- Getting angry and reacting harshly when your child misbehaves.
COST: Child learns to hide things from their parents to avoid upsetting them and typically learns to seek approval or avoid disapproval rather than building internal motivation.
Deep dive: “How to Get Motivated: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation.”
- Barking commands and coercing.
COST: Child may comply, but resent it; often leads to power struggles. They miss out on developing initiative, responsibility, resourcefulness, and self-management.
These incidents may seem small, but when done many times over the lifetime of a child’s development, they become a precursor to a child abandoning themselves through pleasing, compliance, and avoiding conflict. Equally important, we miss out on meaningful conversations, understanding our child better, and crucial teaching moments.
Related reading: “Stop! These 5 Things Will Destroy Responsibility in Children.”
Every parent does their best. Parenting is a 24/7 job and demands a tremendous amount of love. Be gentle with yourself and practice self-care.
And if you’d like parenting support or personalized advice, contact us at Heartmanity. A parent coach is eager to help you learn parenting skills for greater ease and fun.
Transforming lives—and families—is our business!