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3 Hidden Parenting Mistakes that Promote People-Pleasing Behavior in Children

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 a people-pleaser 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.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Mother and her daughter sprinkling cupcakesIs 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,” “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 Can Increase People-Pleasing in Children

Here are a few ways that often 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

Mother scolding her daughter

Budding Self-Esteem: Comply or Be True to Self?

Most parents desire their children to develop healthy self-esteem. And many adults are far too familiar with their low self-esteem issues.

Yet, each time we yell, shame, or criticize a child, we make it nearly impossible for them to be true to themselves.


Because they’re too busy figuring out how to be loved, avoid the discomfort of disappointing adults, and keep their parents happy.

Parental responses help weave a child's self-esteem. When we don't consider a child's desires, needs, and preferences, we send a message that it's their job to take care of others rather than themselves. Or if we overly praise a child or hover over them, we can create a dependency on external validation and support. When these parental behaviors are repeated over many interactions, we unwittingly 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.

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Teaching Children to Advocate for Themselves

So how do we safeguard children’s self-esteem and teach them how to advocate for themselves while respecting the boundaries and 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. But people-pleasing is actually a selfish act because 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. However, allowing children to fully feel, own their mistakes and take responsibility for themselves, or claim their accomplishments with pride is a prerequisite for building confidence in children.

A young black boy proud of his accomplishment with dad in background.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 who expressed 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.

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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.

A resentful, unheard teen and angry father

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?).

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 experiences.


Because their first responsibility IS to feel their own emotions fully! And then 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.

Related reading: “Life Hacks to Replace Feeling Stuffers with Emotional Intelligence.”

Mother telling her elementary daughter how to do her writing assignment.

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 make 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.”

Family having a pizza nightAnd 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?

 Encouraging People-Pleasing versus Encouraging Self-Reliance in Your Children 

Here are some examples:

EXAMPLE 1: Carrying a toddler who knows how to walk because you’re in a hurry or to prevent them from inconvenient exploration.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: Denies them an opportunity to practice gross motor skills, limits independence, and encourages passivity.

EXAMPLE 2:  Talking for or finishing sentences for young children, especially those who are a little shy or slower to complete sentences.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: The child misses opportunities to practice verbal and social skills and may interpret parents’ interruption as not valuing what they have to say. This parental habit can also train the child not to speak up for themselves.

EXAMPLE 3: Doing your child’s chores for them and making excuses for them instead of requiring them to contribute to the family.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: The child misses out on opportunities to generate positive emotions through contributing to the “community” good and is denied the advantage of practicing skills and doing something that is important even though it may not be enjoyable (i.e. self-discipline).

EXAMPLE 4: Your child waits until the last minute to start a science project. You don’t want them staying up late, so you do the project for them (or finish the one they started). Or we help too much on projects so our child looks good and gets better grades.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: When we bail our children out, they don’t have consequences that teach them to manage their time better. This parenting rescue can encourage a child to look to others instead of digging down and finding the courage and staying power within themselves to complete tasks. Some children might acquire learned helplessness.

EXAMPLE 5: Getting angry and reacting harshly when your child misbehaves.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: 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. Also, the parental reaction can override a child's emotions and prevent them from feeling, processing, and regulating their feelings.

Deep Dive:  
“How to Get Motivated: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation.”

EXAMPLE 6:  Barking commands, overpowering, coercive, reactionary, or autocratic parenting.

DEVELOPMENTAL IMPACT: The child may comply, but resent it; which often leads to power struggles and can also increase teen rebellion in our teenagers. Also, 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I help my child not be a people pleaser?

If you've just read this article and spotted yourself in some of these parenting missteps, don't fret. Children are extremely resilient and respond quickly to our changes as parents.

Begin by slowing down your responses so you come from the heart and your actions are conscious rather than knee-jerk reactions. Identify the times of day or day(s) of the week when you feel most stressed. These are the times that you are more likely to take parenting shortcuts. Once you determine these vulnerable times, increase self-care, even if for fifteen minutes!

Regularly, get in touch with what you love about your children. Revel in the honor of being a parent so these joyous feelings are handy when you are taxed. Then, stop before you respond to your child and ask, "What is loving to both of us?" This question and practice will assist you in finding a win-win and begin to reverse people pleasing.

Lastly, tell your children that you want to listen to them better and have them point out when they don't feel heard or loved. Let them know that they have a right to their feelings and to voice their objections and opinions. Then, L I S T E N!

And if you’d like personalized parenting support or advice, contact us at Heartmanity. Parenting coaching is one of Jennifer's favorite things to do and she's always eager to help parents learn emotional intelligence skills for greater ease and fun.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity Founder and a parent coach and behavioral consultant with two decades of experience. She is a Parent Instructor and Instructor Trainer for the International Network of Children and Families and author of several parenting courses, including How to Bully-Proof Your Child and Hacking the Teen Brain. Jennifer is happily married and a mother to 3 fantastic grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting, Parenting Favorites

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