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Perfectionism is one of those subtile psychological disorders that’s easily overlooked. After all, what’s wrong with striving to be the best you can be? Shouldn’t we all strive to be perfect? Especially in our high pressure, winner takes all society, not only are perfectionist attitudes seen by many as necessary, but they are frequently defended as a mark of good parenting.

What is perfectionism?

Definitions of perfectionism vary slightly within the field of psychology, but perfectionism is typically defined as an incessant need to excel and/or be perfect in everything one does. Perfectionists feel as though they must control everything in their environment, accompanied by an obsessive focus on details. They have high personal expectations and a low tolerance for failure. As a result they are often anxious and tend to get overly stressed over little things.

What’s wrong with pushing perfectionism? The consequences of pressuring kids to succeed at all costs

Parents push perfectionism on children because they assume this is necessary in order to give their kids a leg up on life. But it isn’t very healthy for their children. As psychologist Hara Estroff Marano states, “if ever there was a blueprint for breeding psychological distress, that’s it. 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. Perfectionism reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge; if you’re always focused on your own performance and on defending yourself, you can’t focus on learning a task. Here’s the cosmic thigh-slapper: Because it lowers the ability to take risks, perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation-exactly what’s not adaptive in the global marketplace.” (Marano, 2008)

Perfectionist parents place tremendous demands on their children-to get good grades, to always come in first, to consistently outperform their peers, and to be the best at everything they do. With each demand comes a lot of added stress and anxiety. Perfectionist children are often walking basket cases of worry, constantly under both internal and external pressure to perform. Not only is this added stress bad for their mental health, but because stress hormones dampen activity in the cognitive thinking areas of the brain, it can wind up undermining their ability to perform.

Perfectionism ends up instilling a negative style of self-motivation. Kids are driven less by an internal desire to succeed than they are by a fear of failure and the external judgment that accompanies it. Not only is such negative motivation far less effective than positive motivation, but it means that children spend their lives immersed in negative styles of thinking — dwelling on the possibility of failure, judgment, and ridicule, while thinking of themselves as inadequate if they come up short. When they do meet their goals or accomplish something, it isn’t “I’m so proud of myself.” It’s “Phew, I’m glad that’s over and I didn’t screw it up” The high expectations mean there’s no room to enjoy success, only room to fail. As the old saying goes: The path to hell is paved with unrealistic expectations.

Because of this, perfectionist attitudes and the fear of failure instilled by them can end up keeping children from ever trying in the first place. They develop the subconscious attitude that it’s better not to have tried at all than to try and risk failure. Thus parents who place their kids under undue pressure to excel can wind up crippling their child.

Perfectionism also interferes with broader aspects of a child’s development. It demands they spend more time studying, training and achieving while other equally important aspects of development (play, fun, relaxation, socializing, creativity, and so forth) go neglected. “Pushing for perfection clashes with children’s developmental needs,” notes Marano. “If a child’s sense of self comes to rest on accomplishments, they buy into the idea that they’re only as good as they achieve.”

Suniya Luthar, in a 2005 article, found that “children of the affluent” experience just as many problems as inner-city kids, and in some cases more. In tracking the source of their problems, Luthar found that first and foremost were achievement pressures. “Children with very high perfectionist strivings-those who saw achievement failures as personal failures,” she reported, “had relatively high depression, anxiety, and substance use, as did those who indicated their parents overemphasized their accomplishments, valuing them disproportionately more than their personal character.”

Information on perfectionism in children

for more information on perfectionism in children, select from the following pages:

References & Citations:

  • Marano, H.E. (2008) “The making of a perfectionist,” Psychology Today, April, pp. 80-86
  • Patz, A. (2010) “failure is an option,” Parents, Nov., p. 84

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