My Needs don’t matter – the danger of young children being people pleasers

Many children in primary schools may display a variety of behaviours that can cause concern. The children that are overly compliant and put their needs second, may be harder to identify than more challenging behaviours but are of equal concern for children’s emotional health and wellbeing

There are a variety of reasons why a child may develop this behaviour and it can usually be traced back to being very young. When a baby is left crying in their cot for a long time, or ignored or ridiculed, this may result in them internalising a negative view of themselves. A baby who has been neglected and not had some of their basic needs such as being fed met by a caring adult on a regular basis, may learn that their needs do not matter and may become quiet and withdrawn. Children who live in families where there may be domestic violence or frequent conflict between their parents or other adults may learn to try and placate the situation or attempt to diffuse it and please other people. Parents who have drug, alcohol or mental health issues may also impact on their ability to be emotionally available for the child and result in children feeling and behaving overly responsible for people and situations at a young age.

In school these children may appear to be very kind, thoughtful and helpful, but whilst this behaviour may appear on the surface to be positive, their responses to situations can become as emotionally unhealthy as a child who is unable to share. For example, if a child is demonstrating extremes of this behaviour such as bringing a bag of sweets to school and giving them all away to other children without having any themselves. In this situation it can be useful to acknowledge the behaviour, for example, “it’s really kind of you to let Amy go in front of you, but it’s important that you have a turn at being first in the line too.” This provides a positive acknowledgement of the behaviour to the child, but also reminds them that they are important too. Some children may try to buy friendships with other children by giving them things, being overly helpful or accepting bullying behaviour. These children can sometimes present as lacking in confidence and having low self -esteem, but equally may present as being confident. The underlying feeling for these children is often “I’m not good enough or I don’t deserve.” For these children, other people’s feelings and needs are always more important than their own and they may find it difficult to even know what they would like or need.

Case Study
Marcus aged 9 was a delight to have in class. He was always eager to help and offering to do jobs for his teacher. He was very easygoing and never had conflicts with the other children and always let other people go before him in games and activities. His class teacher had no concerns about his behaviour until she saw him giving away his reward prize he had received in assembly for 100% attendance that term. She talked to Marcus about this and he insisted he didn’t want the prize and said “It will make Jake really happy if he has a new pencil case.”

Possible reasons for Marcus’s behaviour:
• He was the oldest of five children and was used to giving his things to his siblings and looking after them when he was at home.
• His parents had a volatile relationship involving lots of conflict and resulting in his dad frequently buying presents for his mum to repair the relationship.
• He had learnt at an early age that other people’s needs should always come before his.

When children have experiences like Marcus it can be very difficult for them to develop a strong sense of themselves and to know who they are and what they want. It is familiar for them to behave in a way they are used to and it can feel uncomfortable to change. I suggested that his teacher gently identify and focus on encouraging him to experience feeling good about the qualities he has. This needed to be managed carefully as he has learnt to measure how he feels about himself by how much he pleases other people. She started a book of positive things about Marcus and each day she identified one thing that he had achieved. For example, doing well in a spelling test in class. I suggested she affirmed to Marcus that he had achieved this by himself to enable him to separate the behaviour and good feelings that come internally rather than feelings that come from helping or giving to others. Gradually Marcus began to develop self esteem and a positive sense of himself enabling him to understand that his feelings and needs were equally as important as other peoples.

When children have learnt that they do not matter and their needs are not important, they may rescue other people by being overly involved in caring for them or end up in an abusive relationship. They may think that everything that happens is their fault and become overly involved in trying to solve other people’s problems or make them better. They may have a distorted sense of reality such as “everyone’s angry with me, I need to make them happy” and can often feel responsible for situations and circumstances that are not their fault. For example, thinking they need to try and make other people feel happy all the time or let other people decide what they should do.

Children who behave like this need help from a caring adult to enable them to change their behaviour. School staff can try to be aware of children who are overly helpful and always want to do jobs, along with identifying children who may placate other children and always give in to them. It is also important to be conscious that children who have learnt this type of behaviour may also take responsibility for situations that are not their fault. For example, owning up to behaviour that another child has done such as breaking something. It is important that school staff make them feel special and important by stating their needs and providing them with lots of choices at regular intervals throughout the school day so they are able to identify and voice their own needs. These can be small choices such as “would you like a red or a green pen?” or “ It’s really important that you get an apple too at break time.” Using words like important can be a useful way of validating a child who is not used to being acknowledged or seen in this way.

The impact of the powerful messages children who have learnt this type of behaviour can receive from school staff should not be underestimated and can play a vital role in enabling them to change their behaviour and develop more emotionally healthy ways of being.

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