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The Problem with Perfectionistic Parenting

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.

As a child psychologist, I’ve known for a long time that when children engage in perfectionistic behaviors, they face various pitfalls, including hampered creativity, lessened motivation, and burn-out.


However, the idea that perfectionistic parenting could actually be a bad thing first occurred to me a couple of years ago. My daughter was 4 years old at the time and starting to have homework assignments in her Pre-K class. As I encouraged her to do the work, I made it a point to praise her effort more than her performance and ignore minor errors. In other words, I was trying to follow all of the parenting advice I felt myself to be an expert in.

To my dismay, my daughter still cried over every frustration, and at one point scrunched up her little face and threw her pencil across the room. I was baffled by her response until I later learned that she had confided to my husband, “Mommy gets mad when she makes mistakes.” That was one of my many reminders of the powerful and unrelenting effect that behavioral modeling has on children. No matter how well I follow parenting advice, “Monkey see, monkey do” can still prevail.


This realization has led me to rethink the ubiquitous concept of “self-care,” especially given the emphasis we have placed on this term in parenting through a pandemic.

What I would like to talk about here is not self-care in the sense of treating oneself to movies or manicures, although those things are nice and well-deserved when we can access them. What I wish to talk about, rather, is the simple and at the same time challenging act of being a little easier on yourself and doing so for your child.


Self-Care


"Self-care" has become a buzzword in the parenting world. There is good reason for this, given that one factor associated with emotional resilience (a desirable parenting trait) is having physical needs met, such as sufficient rest (e.g. Chau & Giallo, 2014). We are in a better position to care for others when we are caring for ourselves. Parents who are resilient also tend to have greater self-efficacy, meaning they believe in their own parenting ability. At the same time, "self-care" represents a quintessential “easier said than done." This is true for all individuals, not just those who tend to be perfectionists in all areas of their lives. When it comes to parenting, we are all overly self-critical at times.


As parents we hear that children must come first and that we are being selfish if we put ourselves first. There are evolutionary reasons why putting children first is essential for their survival. However, making this a rule that must be followed in every situation could lead to a burnt-out parent.


One research psychologist who has come up with an answer is Thomas R. Lynch, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at the University of Southampton in England and the treatment developer of Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or RO-DBT. According to Dr. Lynch, humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to feel uncomfortable when revealing personal traits that might be judged as unacceptable by others. Dr. Lynch’s treatment focuses on helping individuals understand why relentless striving can come with negative consequences. The treatment enables individuals to think in more flexible ways and feel more connected with friends and family.


Although Dr Lynch works primarily with adults, it seems natural that the concepts taught in RO-DBT could also improve parent-child relationships. For example, we are taught that good parenting is something to continuously strive for. While this is a healthy endeavor, relentless striving may take away from our ability to show our children that we are enjoying them for who they are at this very moment.


Sometimes forgiving oneself for something like forgetting to pack your child’s lunch is a notable step in the direction of adequate self-care. If parents honestly examine the cascading thoughts and feelings that follow a mistake like that, they might notice the frustration that they feel about themselves or their children. They may think "I'm a bad parent” or "They should be packing their own lunch already." Either way, if they carry their angst with them throughout the day, they may have less focus and patience for their children.


It amazes me how much such simple mistakes continue to ruffle my own feathers. I try to “fix” or “correct” these problems, such as taking a photo of the homework assignment left behind and emailing it to my daughter’s teacher, or driving to the school to deliver the missing lunch, always with some form of written or verbal apology. These solutions are reasonable and, at least in the short-term, they are effective as well. However, the thought that “I failed” lingers. I have tried to recognize that the images that pop up in my mind of other parents commenting about how disorganized I am, or teachers shaking their heads in dismay, are unrealistic. These scenarios are all products of my imagination, and (as far as I know) not true. They only serve to make me feel worse about myself.


Forgiving yourself means acknowledging that you did not live up to your own—or someone else’s—expectations, and being open to learning from them, as well as moving on from them. That’s an important lesson for you as a parent, but an even more important lesson for your child! When it comes to things like forgetting personal belongings, I have brainstormed strategies out loud with my daughter and even gotten her feedback. We still forget to pack things sometimes, and we remind ourselves that this is OK! You might even want to say it out loud: “I forgive myself for this one.”


With this in mind, as parents we have a great opportunity to change a culture that condemns mistakes, tries to hide flaws, and either heaps self-hatred on top of the problem or throws mounds of blame onto other people. It all boils down to three simple steps:


First: Acknowledge the mistake.


Second: Understand your feelings about it.


Third: Forgive yourself by moving on.


Final Thoughts


Children pick up on their parents' emotions. When we forgive ourselves, we model for our children the process of taking responsibility for our actions and of both accepting our imperfections and making efforts to improve (without aiming for perfection).


In future posts, we will delve into the nuts and bolts to how self-forgiveness plays out in parenting and how it translates to specific strategies for improving the social-emotional well-being of our children.


References


Chau, V. & Giallo, R. (2014). The relationship between parental fatigue, parenting self-efficacy and behaviour: Implications for supporting parents in the early parenting period. Child: Care, Health, and Development. doi:10.1111/cch.12205


Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. Context Press.


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