The problems of parenting as a perfectionist

Perfectionist parents can think they’re setting their children up for success, but most young people find too many routines and rigid rules stifling.

I previously wrote an article about the different styles of parenting and how authoritative parents have the best outcomes. In these families, kids learn to negotiate and share their opinions, they develop independence within reasonable limits and become more responsible through making plenty of decisions themselves.

A parenting style that is more strict about kids following rules and the power of parents to make decisions, is the authoritarian style. For parents who like things to be well ordered and structured, this can often be their default parenting style; and that’s especially true for parents who identify as perfectionists.

In this article, I’m unpacking perfectionism and what parents can do to curb their perfectionist tendencies to be a more authoritative parent when it comes to growing great kids.

The problem of perfectionism

Plenty of people will say that perfectionism is a bad thing, but I actually think that the people who usually get tasks done and are the most efficient workers have a healthy dose of the perfectionist in their personality. Perfectionists usually persevere at tasks, they develop great systems to keep things in order and they’re the ones in the workplace who know that the process really does matter more than the outcome. But sometimes, caring too much about getting the perfect outcome can drive everyone else mad in the process.

Hara Estroff Marano wrote for Psychology Today in 2008, “Perfectionism seeps into the psyche and creates a pervasive personality style. It keeps people from engaging in challenging experiences; they don’t get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities… It is a steady source of negative emotions; rather than reaching toward something positive, those in its grip are focused on the very thing they most want to avoid—negative evaluation. Perfectionism, then, is an endless report card; it keeps people completely self-absorbed, engaged in perpetual self-evaluation—reaping relentless frustration and doomed to anxiety and depression.”

This article is well worth reading in full, but the caution I take from Marano is that perfectionists need to be mindful that they tend to avoid risk or challenge, focus on the negatives in a situation, get too caught up on critiquing themselves and can easily fall into the black hole of anxiety and depression. None of these are qualities that we want to pass on to our kids, so if you, like me have a strong perfectionist muscle in your personality, you’re going to have to find some ways to curb it so that your kids remain creative, adventurous, positive and adaptable.

Curbing the perfectionist parent

There’s more than enough pressure on our kids these days, without those added by a perfectionist parent. If we want our kids to be confident, cope well with change and be able to adapt to the increasingly flexible world we live in, then work on incorporating these tips into your own life:

  1. There’s a place for high expectations, but be forgiving. I’ve seen the power of high expectations in helping young people to develop skills and knowledge beyond what they thought possible, but I’ve also seen how crushing they can be when teens and tweens feel incapable of reaching them or too pushed to get there. It’s a good thing for parents to have expectations of how their kids will go at school or how they will use their time, but there also needs to be room for them to try things, perhaps fail once in a while, and learn by doing rather than getting everything perfect the first time. Embrace disappointment as being just as powerful a lesson as success, and don’t be too harsh on your children when they don’t live up to your expectations.
  2. Make sure your motives are right. We can often set our expectations around our own needs as parents, rather than the needs of our kids. Do we need the house to be spotless for our own sense of calm rather than for our kids to be able to function in the world? Do good grades at school help us to look better in our friendship circles more than it matters to our teens? Be clear what’s driving the pressure you place on your kids and be honest when it’s more about you than them.
  3. Watch the inner voice you’re handing down to your kids. We all have an inner voice that is part cheerleader and part critic. For most of us, there’s probably more negative comments rattling around in our head than positive ones. We need to make sure that our statements to our kids don’t become part of that inner record in a negative way. “You’re always making such a mess of things” or “You’re not as good as your sister” can stick with people all their lives and really cloud the choices they make along the way. Because it’s easy to criticise and be annoyed with teenagers, make a real effort to say positive things. Point out their strengths, champion their good qualities and value what they contribute to the smooth running of family life and your own happiness.
  4. Make space for chaos. The thing about relationships, particularly with teenagers, is that they’re messy and difficult to control. Perfectionist like order and everything to follow routines, but as a parent you have to be willing to compromise and give some space for chaos or everyone else in your family is going to feel restricted and stifled. As a pretty committed perfectionist myself, I’ve learned to focus my perfectionism on things that mostly affect me rather than everyone else, and to let go of other things even though they irk me. You have to put perfectionism in a box if you’re going to have a sane life with children!
  5. Use the teenage years to hand over control. Your goal as a parent, is to reach the stage when your kids are exiting their teenage years with the ability to make their own decisions and live with the consequences with little assistance or support from you. You obviously still want to have a relationship with them and care about them, but not in the intense style you did when they were 4 years old. From the moment kids start high school, parents should be looking for what responsibilities, decisions and goals they can hand over to their kids rather than trying to cling onto the whole deck of cards and stay in control. Not only will you end up with a great relationship with your adult children, but you’ll probably experience a lot less stress and arguments along the way.
  6. Who cares anyway? I think deep down perfectionists are driven by a sense of not letting others down and not being seen to be inadequate in the eyes of others. But have you noticed that no-one cares nearly as much as you do? When feeling immense pressure to have things a certain way, get something done or worse pressure your kids in a particular direction, take a step back and ask who will really care anyway. If you’re the only person likely to care, then you need to deal with your expectations, rather than pushing everyone else to meet them.

There’s nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, as long as you know when to let things go. As parents we need to show our kids that there’s a difference between high standards and stifling expectations that restrict life rather than enlarge it.

What do you think? Is there a perfectionist lurking in your parenting methods? How to you manage it?

This article originally appeared on the Tweens2teen website and has been republished with permission.

Rachel Doherty

Rachel Doherty is the founder of Tweens2teen. She’s a social worker, teacher and the mother of 3 teenagers. In her spare time she trains youth workers and does a lot of washing and cooking. You can read more of her work on her website – tweens2teen.com

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