How People Pleasing Contributes to Bullying and How to Stop It

Teen girls talking

Most parents teach their kids to get along well with others, to work together, and to compromise. But there are times when this desire for peaceful relationships can turn into something unhealthy.

Typically, when kids become too compliant and flexible, often at the expense of their own wants and needs, they have fallen into the trap of people pleasing. While this may not seem obvious, people pleasers are one of the primary targets of bullies.

People pleasers tend to be a magnet for mean, controlling, and demanding people.

Why People Pleasing Is Harmful

Engaging in people pleasing is draining and prevents those who participate in it from getting their needs met. In fact, research suggests that people will often engage in people pleasing if they think it will make other people happy or more comfortable, but in the end their efforts can be self-destructive and damaging.

Additionally, kids who engage in people pleasing are more susceptible to peer pressure because they desperately want to fit in and will often compromise their values and beliefs in order to please other people. This vulnerability is especially prevalent when kids are involved with cliques.

Many times, the followers in a group are people pleasers that go along with what the group wants in order to fit in and to avoid being ostracized. What they do not realize is that going along with what a bully wants only works temporarily. Usually, as time goes on, bullies and cliques get more demanding.

The more people pleasers give in, the worse they are treated. It is a vicious cycle that leaves them feeling miserable.

Signs of People Pleasing

It can be challenging to discern whether or not your child is engaging in people pleasing, especially because you don't witness every interaction they have with their friends. For this reason, it's important to know which actions suggest people pleasing or at the very least indicate your child is susceptible to this pattern of behavior. Here are some indicators that your child may be vulnerable to people pleasing.

  • Acts like their friends instead of being authentic and true to who they are
  • Apologizes to their friends even when they have done nothing wrong
  • Confuses selfishness with healthy boundaries
  • Expends a lot of energy trying to avoid conflict
  • Experiences distress when people are upset or angry with them
  • Expresses feeling overwhelmed by everything they need to do
  • Fails to stand up for what's right
  • Feels responsible for other people's feelings
  • Goes along with the group and resists expressing their values
  • Misinterprets people pleasing as being kind
  • Needs praise from their friends in order to feel good about who they are
  • Refrains from acknowledging or communicating hurt feelings or anger
  • Refuses to say no even when it's in their best interest
  • Wants desperately to be accepted and liked by their peers

How to Prevent People Pleasing

If you notice your child falling into the trap of people pleasing or in a generally unhealthy friendship, there are things you can do to keep this pattern of behavior from becoming a way of life. Here are five tips for dealing with people pleasing in your child’s life.

Praise and Affirm Your Teen

Sometimes kids fall into people pleasing because they crave the affirmation they get from being a nice person or being extra helpful around the house. Be sure your child has other opportunities for praise and affirmation that do not come from sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others.

While it is a wonderful trait to put others first, be sure your children know that this is not the only way to feel good about the things they do.

Differentiate Between Goodwill and Pleasing 

Help your kids see the difference in doing something for others because they genuinely want to and doing something for others because they feel obligated or pressured to do so. They also should learn to avoid doing things out of fear that their friends will reject them if they don't do them. Learning the difference between showing goodwill toward others and people pleasing will help them make better choices in the long run.

Help Identify Negative Feelings

Talk to your child about how they feel after they have done something to please another person. If they're feeling angry, resentful, frustrated, or sad, there is a good chance that they have engaged in people pleasing.

In other words, they did something for another person because they felt obligated, not because they wanted to.

Often people pleasing is so deeply ingrained that your child doesn’t even notice they are doing it. Their feelings about various situations may be their only clue. As a result, it is important that they learn to recognize where their frustrations, anxieties, and sadness are coming from. 

Contrast Boundaries and Selfishness

Many kids who struggle with people pleasing worry that others will view them as selfish if they start honoring their own needs and saying no. Typically, when a teen struggles with people pleasing, they are so far from being a selfish person that even with radical changes in their lives they are still more generous and kind than most.

Remind them that truly selfish people do not even worry about whether or not they are being selfish. Remember, though, mean kids, bullies, and other controlling people will try to manipulate the situation by accusing them of being selfish or inconsiderate. They need to resist the urge to believe those comments.

Talk About Healthy Friendships

If your child’s friends do not respect them and won't change their manipulative or demanding behavior, it's time to find some new friends.

Help your child see that healthy friendships value the wants and needs of both members of the friendship, not just one.

What’s more, finding healthy friends to hang out with can go a long way in helping your teen learn to appreciate their true worth. When they do find healthier people to be around, people pleasing will become a thing of the past.

A Word From Verywell

It can be hard to watch your child engage in people pleasing, especially if the behavior causes them stress or is infringing on their morals and values. Look for opportunities to address the issue without making your child feel bad about themselves or like they have failed in some way.

Most likely, if your child tries to please their friends, they also try to please you too. Give them opportunities at home to say no and feel safe doing so. With practice, they will learn that it's OK to establish boundaries and take care of their needs while still considering other people's feelings in the process.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yuksel-Sahin F. An examination of bullying tendencies and bullying coping behaviors among adolescents. Procedia Soc Behav Sci. 2015;191(2015):214-221. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.415

  2. Catarino F, Gilbert P, McEwan K, Baiao R. Compassion motivations: distinguishing submissive compassion from genuine compassion and its association with shame, submissive behavior, depression, anxiety and stress. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2014;33(5):399-412. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.5.399

  3. KidsHealth From Nemours. Your child's self-esteem.

  4. Ngoc NN, Tuan NP, Takahashi Y. A meta-analytic investigation of the relationship between emotional intelligence. SAGE Open. 2020;10(4):1-19. doi:10.1177/2158244020971615

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.