Raising kind kids who think of others and say things like please and thank you is considered a win for most parents. But when this behavior becomes extreme, unhealthy people-pleasing patterns develop — patterns that can follow a kid into adulthood and lead to issues like resentment, stress, and even relationship problems. So, it’s essential for parents to spot the differences early.
Not sure what to look for? Scary Mommy checked in with three experts who shared the top signs that you might be raising a people pleaser and how you can help them maintain healthy boundaries.
What’s a people pleaser?
Children are naturally inclined to seek praise and validation — whether that’s from a parent, teacher, or friend. It’s a trait that’s not entirely selfless either and therefore doesn’t necessarily equate to a child having low self-esteem or low confidence (although it can). If you’ve ever witnessed your child display extra “good” behavior when they know a reward is on the line, you know that kids can be pretty skilled at putting themselves first. And when they don’t achieve the anticipated result, most kids are also pretty skilled at expressing their disappointment.
According to Chloe Picot-Jacobs, LCSW, and founding therapist at Happypillar, “Children are generally eager to succeed and see their loved ones happy, so that alone is not a concern. However, ‘people pleaser’ suggests a long-term pattern of behavior that interferes with someone’s ability to identify or express their own needs,” adding that children may even begin to be overly concerned with others’ reactions to the point of suppressing their points of view or setting healthy boundaries.
How does people-pleasing behavior develop?
As mentioned earlier, people naturally want to help and please others. In fact, Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC, mom and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0-2, says it’s a human response that, like fight or flight, is designed to ensure the survival of our species. “Of course, there is a wide spectrum that we all fall into with some wanting to please more than others,” says Cook, adding, “The differentiating element between a people pleaser, a fawn response [a trauma response], and a nice person is that the ‘people pleasers’ intrinsic joy is no longer felt and is replaced with resentment, anger, frustrations.”
How kids develop an unhealthy level of people-pleasing lies in many factors. Wendy Kovacs Cortes, Ph.D., LMFT, and adjunct faculty in the Couple and Family Therapy Department at Adler University, explains, “Often, people-pleasing behaviors are related to living in environments where there is low attunement to [a child’s] feelings from the adults in their life [that can result in them becoming] so focused on others that they are unable to identify their own thoughts or wishes, or they don’t see the value in following their own heart.”
This feeling of not being valued or accepted or receiving negative attention due to expressing their needs or thoughts can happen in many environments and situations. For example, a child may develop people-pleasing traits to fit in with their peers who may not accept them for who they are.
But like child development, in general, people pleasing is often learned in the home. “A child definitely can learn these behaviors by watching one parent constantly do everything to please the other; this is called modeling. Or a child may inadvertently learn to ‘people please’ as a trauma response to try to avoid future abuse,” says Cook.
What are signs my child may be a people pleaser?
Cook shared this list of the top signs that a child may be a people pleaser, but parents should consider each situation as well as the frequency and extremity of the behaviors:
- Struggles to identify what they want
- Takes on traits of peers to try to fit in rather than being authentic
- Uses a lot of energy to avoid conflict
- Emotionally comforts others when distressed
- Adjusts their mood state to keep peace with caretakers
- Has a deep fear of rejection
- Concedes to others’ wants immediately when challenged
How can I help my child maintain healthy boundaries?
Picot-Jacobs says parents should keep in mind that even adults struggle with people pleasing. Showing patience and understanding with yourself and your child in the process of learning new skills is vital. It will go a long way toward developing healthier ways of interacting with others.
“When you experience big emotions as a parent, reassure your child that it is your job, not theirs, to manage your emotions. Even if you’ve told them thousands of times, it can only help to tell them again that you love them no matter what. It’s easy to express our pride and adoration when kids are having a ‘good’ day, but they need to hear this just as much, if not more, on days when they’ve struggled,” says Picot-Jacobs.
What techniques or language can I use to help my child?
“To counter people pleasing that seems to be moving toward the negative, encourage children to make decisions for themselves, identify likes and dislikes and their feelings, accept credit and praise when earned, and engage in healthy discussions and debates,” suggests Cortes.
Additionally, Cook offers these specific examples that parents can apply today:
- Encourage your child to share their feelings.
- Validate your child’s feelings when they express them.
- When correcting behaviors, don’t say, “You make me feel X when you do Y.” Instead, say, “I feel anxious watching you run by the river’s edge. Can we walk somewhere else? I love watching you run.”
- Don’t tell them to do things they don’t want to do because it “makes Grandma happy when you hug her.” Instead, say to Grandma, ‘Hey, we know you like hugs, and maybe Lucas will feel like it later, but he doesn’t want a hug right now, and that’s OK.’ Then you, the adult, can manage any fallout.
As a last word, it’s essential to be aware and teach children that we are ultimately each responsible for only our own feelings and reactions.