Fighting the Disease to Please in Teenage Girls

Most teenage girls want people to like them, but some go to great lengths – at the cost of their own needs and desires – to please others.

Society tells young ladies they must be nice, polite, and self-sacrificing in order to be liked. Some girls try to gain the acceptance of others as a way to cope with past abuse or trauma, or as a way to fit into a particular peer group.

Whatever the reason, many young girls suffer from the “disease to please,” often keeping quiet rather than learning to speak their minds.

The Dangers of People Pleasing

Because it is impossible to please everyone, people pleasers are setting themselves up for failure. As a result, most develop low self-confidence and a sense of powerlessness.

In high school, some teens go from trying to please their parents to trying to please their peers. Tween girls who strive to please others are more likely to find themselves in unsafe situations because they follow the crowd in order to be liked and accepted. They may experiment with drugs or engage in early sexual activity, even if they know their behavior is wrong and would rather say no. In short, their decisions are based almost exclusively on the opinions of their peers.

If left unaddressed, people-pleasing follows teens into college and adulthood. Their friends continue to take advantage of them; they keep saying yes when they really mean no, and they underachieve professionally because they lack the confidence to take calculated risks. As a result, they may become resentful in their adult relationships and stuck in careers that are less than fulfilling.

Is Your Daughter a People Pleaser?

There is a big difference between a thoughtful child who asserts herself when necessary and a girl who places the opinions and needs of others before her own. Here are a few signs that your daughter may be a people pleaser:

  • Having difficulty saying no even when saying yes compromises her own needs or wants
  • No longer engaging in activities she was previously interested in
  • Spending inordinate amounts of time in her room or on her computer or phone
  • Failing to communicate with parents about her relationships with friends
  • Worrying excessively about what other people think
  • Holding back opinions and thoughts for fear that someone will disagree or be upset with her viewpoint
  • Trying to be friends with peers who mistreat her
  • Being unusually sensitive to criticism or rejection by peers
  • Going to great lengths to avoid conflict, anger, or controversy
  • Having an intense fear of being alone
  • Believing she doesn’t deserve to get what she wants or to be heard
  • Seeking out friends or romantic interests who are controlling or demeaning

Striving for More Than ‘Nice’

To combat people-pleasing patterns, teens need to develop self-confidence and the ability to say no at a young age. At New Leaf Academy, the approach is one of personal empowerment. Tween girls learn healthy ways to resolve conflict without sacrificing their own needs and without trampling on the feelings of others.

Every Monday at our all-girls’ school, the girls have “house groups” where they practice effective communication skills, including how to read the body and facial cues and approach someone with the appropriate tone of voice. The staff discusses how to know when it’s safe to stand up for oneself, how to hear and accept feedback, and how to decide when it is best to either walk away or seek the help of an adult.

“We help our students understand how they can best be heard,” says Marshall. “If someone says something in a mean way or with a mean look on their face, the other person isn’t likely to hear the message accurately. We work with the girls to be assertive and resolve conflict without hurting another person’s feelings.”

The students at the school for girls also learn how to make emotional and behavioral requests of other people by role-playing and practicing conflict resolution skills. First, each girl assesses what it is she wants and why; then she decides what she wants the people in her life to do about it. If the person isn’t willing to change or comply with the request, the girls learn how to take care of themselves so that they aren’t victims of other people’s choices (for example, by talking to an adult, journaling, or calling a friend).

“We explain to the girls that if you’re asking someone for something, you’re asking them to adopt your beliefs and values. This may be something they’re willing to do, or it may not. If not, your options are to remove yourself from the situation, ignore them or get an adult to help.”

How Parents Can Help Combat People Pleasing

Encourage Involvement in Confidence-Building Activities

We recommend that parents encourage their tween girls to write about their feelings and experiences in a journal and to get involved in activities that allow them to pursue their passions, whether sports, drama, art or something else.

“Girls who are passionate about something are more likely to feel confident in who they are and stand up for the things they care about,” says Marshall.

Students are encouraged to participate in a wide variety of activities, including horseback riding, skiing, art, choir, community service, and crafts until they find something they like.

It is also helpful for girls with learning disabilities, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or nonverbal learning disorder, to participate in an academic program with teachers who understand their unique learning style and build on their successes. In middle school and high school, academic success is a major part of how teens perceive themselves.

Be a Role Model

Girls also build confidence by modeling their behaviors after adults who are self-assured and skilled at resolving conflict in healthy ways. Ideally, this role model would be a parent, but it can also be extended family members, coaches, teachers, church members, or other trusted mentors.

Meet Your Child’s Friends

Make an effort to meet each of your daughter’s friends, and refrain from encouraging more visits with her friends until you get a sense of who they are as people. Some young girls have difficulty making friends. As a result, parents are quick to push for more time with a certain friend without realizing that the friend is actually a bully or a negative influence.

“It’s a strange phenomenon, but some girls have an intense desire to please the people who are displeased, rather than to please those who love them. Girls repeatedly try to make friends with those who take their lunch money every day or write negative things about them on Facebook. There’s an odd attraction to win those people over.”

We also recommend asking a lot of questions about your child’s friends, watching the interactions between friends, and encouraging your child to talk with you about the ups and downs in her friendships. Some potential signs of trouble include hanging out with one friend exclusively or being secretive about friendships when the child used to be comfortable sharing this information. These behaviors may suggest that your daughter is trying to please someone who is bullying or otherwise mistreating her.

Create Responsibilities & Enforce Consequences

Teenage girls need to have responsibilities in order to build confidence. Whether they have chores at home, are responsible for an animal’s care, or serve as team captain on a sports team at school, girls need opportunities to succeed and build on their accomplishments. They also need consequences for both positive and negative behavior so that they know their behaviors are being recognized.

Teach Your Child to Be Her Own Advocate

Teenage girls, particularly those with learning or behavioral issues, can avoid people-pleasing by identifying and asking for what they need, advises Marshall. Girls need to know that it’s acceptable – and encouraged – to ask for what they need and to say no when a request doesn’t match with their values or beliefs.

Get Help

Teaching teenage girls to have confidence and stand up for themselves takes a great deal of skill and practice. If your daughter is struggling to act in her own best interest because she is trying to please friends, a boyfriend, a teacher, or anyone else, get help before she grows into an adult who seeks to meet everyone else’s needs but her own. New Leaf Academy of Oregon specializes in empowering middle school-aged girls to establish their own identity and grow confident in their skills and interests.

Girls who are perpetually trying to please others are rarely happy with what they’re getting out of life. And though kindness and manners are important, tween and teen girls can be nice and still know who they are and what they want. Help your daughter grow into the confident, able-minded woman she was meant to be.

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