What to Know About Perfectionist Parenting

Expecting too much from yourself or your child isn't healthy for anyone

Expecting kids to be perfect is unhealthy.
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The pressure on today’s parents to do everything and be everything for their kids is a real problem for many families. From online mommy wars and judgmental looks from in-laws to the subtle one-upping between friends and shaming that goes on over social media, it’s no wonder that moms and dads feel the need to be the perfect parents.

But here’s the thing—being a perfectionist not only stresses you out to the max, but you might also be harming your child’s well-being. Fortunately, if you do engage in perfectionist parenting, there are some steps you can take to change your expectations of yourself and your child. 

Signs That You Might Be a Perfectionist Parent

Some perfectionist parents are perfectionists in every aspect of their lives. They excel at everything they do—otherwise, they wouldn’t bother trying. They make major sacrifices to meet their goals.

And by most standards, these individuals are successful people. Yet, they never feel quite good enough.

Others are perfectionists in the parenting realm only. These individuals may fear “messing their kids up for life,” or they may fear if they don't help their child getting into an Ivy League college they'll have failed as a parent. 

Some of them expect perfection from themselves and others expect perfection from their kids. While they may think their standards will lead to excellence, their need for perfection ultimately backfires.

Signs you might be expecting yourself to be a perfect parent

  • Criticizing yourself often
  • Blaming yourself when your child doesn’t succeed
  • Comparing yourself to other parents and feeling like you fall short
  • Beating yourself up for not being able to do more for your kids, despite the fact you do a lot for them already
  • Constantly second-guessing your parenting choices
  • Losing your cool often because your expectations are too high

Signs you might be expecting your child to be perfect

  • Difficulty watching your child do something if she doesn’t do it your way
  • Micromanaging your child when she’s working on a task
  • Putting pressure on your child to perform flawlessly
  • Criticizing your child more than you praise
  • Pushing your child to fulfill your dreams
  • Making your self-worth hinge on your child’s achievement
  • Treating your child’s activities, like a math test or a soccer game, like they’re life-altering events

Who Is Likely to Engage in Perfectionist Parenting

No one is immune from the desire to be the best parent possible—even to an irrational degree—but there is a group that seems to be affected disproportionately: working mothers.

There are two reasons behind this. First, anyone (man or woman) who’s used to being a high achiever in the workplace will feel the need to succeed in other areas of their life, too. Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut parenting goals or milestones for someone to achieve in the parenting realm like there can be in the office.

Second, working mothers often report a greater amount of stress in “trying to do it all.” A Care.com survey noted the emotional toll that this stress can take on a working mother. Eighty percent feel stressed about getting everything done, 79 percent feel as if they’re falling behind and more than 50 percent fear that they’re missing important everyday moments in their family’s lives.

Dads often feel parenting guilt, too. A 2015 survey from Pew Research Center found that almost 50 percent of fathers say they’re only doing a great or excellent job as a parent—meaning the other half doesn’t give themselves high marks on the daddyhood front.

The Pew Research Center found that today’s dads are spending, on average, triple the amount of time with their kids as dads in 1965. Yet, nearly half of them feel they aren’t spending enough time with their children.

Parents aren’t the only victims of perfectionist parenting, though. This type of attitude from moms and dads can have significant effects on their children.

The Negative Effects on Children

There’s a difference between a parent having high standards and being a perfectionist. Having high standards is often a good trait in a parent because it sets expectations for a child and helps them to succeed in life.

Perfectionist parenting, however, sets a child up to believe that if he doesn’t achieve the highest standards, he’s a failure. Putting too much pressure on kids to be perfect sends the wrong message. A child may cheat on his school work to get good grades because he may think you value achievement over honest. Children of all ages need to be able to make mistakes without fear of major consequences, research shows, in order to learn.

Perfectionism can rub off on kids too. Kids who think they have to be perfect are at a higher risk of mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. They’re also good at hiding their symptoms so often their mental health problems go untreated.

Perfectionism doesn’t help kids do better. In fact, it often makes them perform worse. Perfectionism is linked to self-defeating behavior, like procrastination. Ironically, perfectionism tends to increase the likelihood that a child might fail.

When you set the bar too high, your child is likely to give up. If he knows he can’t get straight As, he might quit doing his homework. Or, if he knows he’ll never be a star athlete, he might stop playing sports.

Letting Go of Perfectionism

No one is ever perfect. Your child will grow up to work with imperfect colleagues, have an imperfect roommate, or partner with an imperfect person. So even if you were a perfect parent, you wouldn’t be doing him any favors.

Letting go of perfectionism isn’t easy. But cutting yourself—and your child—some slack, could be important for your psychological health. It could also improve your relationship with your child and set your child up for success in the future.

Whether you expect yourself to be perfect or you expect perfection from your child, these strategies can help

  • Consider your language. Whether he just won a ribbon in the science fair or his team lost a game on the field, avoid telling your child that his performance was a complete success or that losing was terrible. Instead, ask your child to identify what he did well and what he thinks he can do better next time.
  • Cut your child some slack. If you find yourself yelling at your child because he didn't make his bed correctly or you are angry with him for getting some spelling words wrong, take a deep breath. Remember that kids are supposed to make mistakes and each mistake is a learning opportunity. 
  • Stay off the message boards and/or social media. Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for negativity. Remember, you’re only seeing the highlight reel of another person’s life, not the whole film. Don’t compare your child to other children either. All kids are different.
  • Focus on what you do right in parenting. OK, so you might not be the best at coming up with educational, enriching activities on a daily basis, but perhaps you rock at sewing Halloween costumes and baking cookies on the weekends. Acknowledge your strength and practice a little self-compassion where you’re not a superstar.
  • Send healthy messages about failure. Let your child make mistakes and fail sometimes. Talk about failure as a learning opportunity and acknowledge that failing a test or not making the school play is hard, but it’s not the end of the world.
  • Pay attention to your child’s effort, not the outcome. Rather than praising your child for getting an A on a test, praise her for studying hard. Or instead of telling her that she did a great job scoring two goals in the game, tell her that you noticed she hustled hard. Then, she’ll be more likely to focus on doing her best rather than making sure she achieves at all costs.
  • Back off when your child is overwhelmed. It’s helpful to cheer your child on when he’s struggling, but insisting he keep trying after he’s mentally checked out isn’t a good idea. If he starts disliking activities he used to love, like baseball or piano, it may be a sign you’re pushing him too hard. Challenge your child to do well but don’t push him to do more than he’s capable of doing.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you’ve been a perfectionist parent but you’re able to dial it back a bit, don’t sweat it too much—it’s clear you’re working hard to be the best parent you can be. And your willingness to acknowledge your weaknesses, learn from your mistakes, and cut yourself some slack will serve as a good role model to your child.  

    If however, you can’t seem to let go of the idea that you need to be perfect or that your child needs to perform perfectly, consider seeking professional help. Sometimes, the quest for perfection stems from a mental health issue, like an anxiety disorder or a trauma history. At other times, perfectionism creates serious problems, like chronic stress or relationship difficulties. A trained mental health professional can assist you in overcoming perfectionism. And that could be the best thing you can do for yourself and for your child.

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