High-achieving children may be seeking to please their parents or win their love and approval.
We want our kids to be kind and empathetic — to take others’ feelings into account. But keeping others in mind doesn’t have to mean always doing what they want you to. That kind of behavior, known as people-pleasing, often originates in childhood in the form of parent-pleasing.
There are lots of things parents want kids to do, from making their beds to finishing their homework to sharing toys with siblings. Some children, however, go beyond fulfilling their parents’ basic requests. They take responsibility for their parents’ emotions, which can prevent them from developing their own individual sense of self.
HuffPost spoke to mental health experts about how parents can recognize people-pleasing tendencies and help steer kids toward healthier relationship patterns.
What does parent-pleasing behavior look like?
Parent-pleasing behavior is more than simply complying with a parent’s instructions or even wanting their love and affection — both of which are completely normal.
“All young children want to please their parents, so they can feel more accepted and secure in the family constellation. But some children, anxious and unsure about their caretakers’ regard for them, go overboard — actually minimizing or denying their own needs to cater to their parents’ desires,” Leon Seltzer, a psychologist who has written about people-pleasing and other topics, told HuffPost.
As Kathleen Schlegel, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, explained: “A parent’s happiness and/or approval becomes a priority over their own thoughts or feelings.”
If kids get the sense that a parent’s love is somehow conditional, they may go to greater lengths trying to secure it. The same thing can happen if kids believe that they are responsible for a parent’s happiness.
Aparna Sagaram, a marriage and family therapist practicing in Philadelphia, says she often sees this in immigrant households and in families coming from more collectivist (as opposed to individualistic) cultures.
“A parent that doesn’t have adult peers,” she said, may “start to rely on their kids for that emotional support.”
A child might then come to believe they have to be there for a parent in every single way possible and that it’s their job to regulate the parent’s emotions.
When a child develops their own identity, that “can feel really threatening to parents,” she continued. As a result, “this kid grows up thinking, ‘Everything I do is either for my parents [or] for the community. And so what I think and feel doesn’t actually matter.’ That’s how that parent-pleasing turns into people-pleasing.”
Parents hoping to prevent this progression in their child should look out for any signs that a child is prioritizing others and discounting their own thoughts, opinions or desires.
According to Seltzer, Schlegal and Sagaram, such signs might include:
Being more organized than expected for a child
Trying to placate or appease their caretakers
Forcing themselves to smile
Jumping to volunteer to do things most kids would try to avoid
Being unable or unwilling to state their own preferences when asked
Frequently asking for permission
Frequently checking in with parents, as in, “I just want to make sure this is OK”
Separation anxiety when leaving their parents
Social anxiety at events with peers
Preferring to stay home rather than engage in extracurricular activities or spend time with peers
Of course, not all signs of parent-pleasing are inherently negative. Schlegel noted that parent-pleasing might motivate some kids to be high-achieving (academically, athletically, artistically) or self-sufficient, and neither of these qualities necessarily indicates a problem. The concern is that a child who doesn’t take their own aspirations into account won’t learn how to do so.
Gender dynamics also play a role here. “Girls are taught to listen more and be empathetic, pay attention and think about other people before you make a decision,” Sagaram explained. A girl being pushed toward parent-pleasing behaviors at home will face additional pressure outside the home to act in people-pleasing ways — and even girls who aren’t encouraged to pursue parent-pleasing behaviors at home will encounter other situations where such behavior is expected of them.
What are the risks of this kind of behavior?
The long-term risks of engaging in people-pleasing behavior are significant. Kids can miss out on developing an internal compass, and when they are adults, they may struggle to understand their own true desires and needs.
“If the child deduced that their value was predicated on gratifying their parents’ preferences, such inner programming, once entrenched, becomes for them a prerequisite for winning others’ acceptance. Not only does that lead to their losing touch with their own priorities, values, and interests, but it makes them regard them as necessarily subordinate to others’ preferences,” Seltzer said. He added that these qualities can lead other people to look down on them or even take advantage of them.
Adult people-pleasers, Sagaram said, may be reluctant to speak up for themselves, struggle with boundaries or have trouble making decisions because they don’t want anyone to feel hurt. Such qualities might make someone appear to be easygoing and flexible, but really, they’re just out of touch with their own desires and needs.
When someone is a people-pleaser, they risk missing out on parts of themself and being unable to form healthy relationships. People-pleasing “can create problems with self-awareness, confidence, and can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue,” Schlegel said. “Often, people assume the effort they give to others will somehow be returned to them, which mostly does not happen and can result in feelings of resentment, loneliness, sadness, anger.”
What can parents do to help their children avoid becoming people-pleasers?
Overall, as parents, we should make it clear that we love our children for who they are, not what they achieve or do, or how they behave. We do not want to give the impression that our love is in any way contingent.
For children who excel at being self-sufficient, it’s important to ask them about their feelings and make space for them to explore their emotions. Schlegel suggested “structuring a conversation to help them reflect on what they may be feeling and how you, the parent, can help support them through it.”
Similarly, for children who are high achievers, it’s good to ask them about their own feelings upon meeting success. “Instead of expressing your feelings and pride, ask your child how they feel after their achievement. In asking your child for their input, you are supporting your child on their journey to achieve their potential without placing pressures of your own agenda, thoughts, or feelings on the matter,” Schlegel said.
Comments such as, “It would make me really happy if you...” or “You make us so proud,” she continued, can reinforce a child looking to you for approval.
Something else to avoid is calling a child “selfish.” “That’s a pretty severe warning to the child that they’ll risk parental approval or rejection if they adhere to their wants and needs,” Seltzer said.
For children who feel like they need to provide companionship or emotional support to parents, parents should show that they are capable of functioning independently and meeting these needs in other ways.
Sagaram suggested that parents begin by doing some self-reflection, asking themselves, “What are the ways in which I am relying on my kid that could be problematic? Am I turning to them for emotional support, or am I telling them too much?” She noted that even if you don’t think you’re over-sharing with your children, they are probably hearing more than you think they are — and they’re more than capable of reading your emotions.
It’s healthy for both you and your child when you have a full life that includes people and interests that don’t involve them. Again, Sagaram suggested that parents take a moment to examine where they’re at: “What does your own emotional regulation look like? Who are your supports outside of your kids? Do you have adult friends that you can rely on? ... Do you have other sources of joy?”
She continued, “Oftentimes when people are unhappy in their relationships, they turn to their kids for happiness. And that is a very slippery slope.”
If you have a daughter, it’s particularly important to ask her what she thinks and make space for her opinions. Encourage her to speak up, and let her know that you want to hear what she has to say.
It’s equally important, Sagaram noted, if you have a son, that he sees his sister or other women regularly advocate for themselves and unapologetically take up space so that he understands not to expect that women will neglect their own needs.
You want your child to understand “that she has choice and she can decide what she wants to do, not do what she thinks people want her to do,” Sagaram said.