Perfectionism. Far from what it sounds like, experts describe the reality of perfectionism as a mix of the compulsion to be perfect, the persistent fear of failure and the belief that ‘being perfect’ is the only way to self-acceptance. Unfortunately, as a belief system, it is often passed from generation to generation and parents who place extreme expectations on themselves tend to transfer that same level of expectation to their kids.
The result? A lot of stressed out, overscheduled children. Today, it is not uncommon for elementary-age kids to have every night of the week taken up by practices, rehearsals and private coaching sessions—all while striving to be, well, perfect.
The Burden of Perfection(ism)
From the perfectionist parent to the child inheriting the belief, experts agree that perfectionism is a burden. Licensed psychologist Dr. Thomas Greenspon, author of What to Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism: A Guide for Kids and Freeing Our Families From Perfectionism describes perfectionists as often being hypersensitive to criticism, over-committed, compulsively attentive to detail, tending to procrastinate, and expressing feelings of self-disgust, anger, anxiety and shame. According to Greenspon, a perfectionist’s self-dialogue may express thoughts such as “I am never good enough,” “I’m only acceptable if I’m perfect,” and “If I make a mistake, something is wrong with me.”
Dr. Christine Castillo, a pediatric neuropsychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Children’s Medical Center Dallas affirms, “A parent’s perfectionist tendencies can certainly impact their child, especially when they demand the same level of high performance at a time when the child may not be capable of demonstrating such.” Castillo stresses that when a parent’s expectations far exceed a child’s abilities, dampened feelings of self-worth and increased anxiety may arise. “Certainly, expectations for success can help motivate a child,” says Castillo, “however, when the expectations are too unrealistic, such as achieving 100 percent on every exam or always hitting a baseball when it is pitched or mastering a dance routine the first time, the child may become fearful of failing and may react to anxiety with external behaviors such as arguing or acting silly during practice or by internal expressions such as stomach aches or withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities.”
So what’s a perfectionist parent to do?
Keep It on the Lighter Side
Perfectionist parents Andrea and Ted Ruby have two daughters (12 and 9). The Rubys are an active family involved in judo, skiing, boating, drama and music lessons, among other things. Ruby, a self-confessed over-achiever, says, “My youngest daughter moves through life unconcerned about performance and what others may think and, as a result, her grades are good and she has fun with whatever she is doing. My oldest daughter, a high-achiever too, is more serious. When I noticed her hesitation at judo competitions and her concern over school projects, I realized she could be reacting to the pressure I put on myself so we began to emphasize the importance of having fun. Recently she asked if she could begin music lessons. We’ve kept this experience light and she is having a great time.”
Marsha and John Crawford are both perfectionists, but their perfectionists tendencies, tempered by their self-awareness has turned out to be a plus for their kids, particularly their youngest (13), who brings new meaning to the words, “Practice, Practice, Practice.” “John is a perfectionist when it comes to music,” says Crawford. “My perfectionism is more school-related. “Before having children, we were fortunate to have the time to learn each other’s ‘control’ areas. If I’m being hard on the kids about school, they have dad for support. And if he’s being hard on them about the music, they come to me. Sometimes I realize when I’m being too hard but, in the moment, there’s no control—that’s what perfectionism is. Thankfully, my husband and I … balance each other. We’ve agreed where the lines are so we can see when we may be causing the kids pain and are able to stop a negative spiral.”