The psychological toll of wanting your kid to be "perfect"

It's called "other-oriented perfectionism," and it can have a negative effect on children. Here's why it happens

By Gail Cornwall
Published September 12, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)
Are We There Yet: Perfectionist Kids and Parenting (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Are We There Yet: Perfectionist Kids and Parenting (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Joliene Trujillo-Fuenning, who lives in Denver, Colorado with her two kids, ages 3 and 22 months, has some pretty clear perfectionist tendencies. If she sends an email with a typo in it, she says, "It will drive me nuts for a solid week or two." After her husband cleans the bathroom, she has to fight the urge to criticize. (Sometimes she'll just clean it again.) And when it comes to her 3-year-old's education, Trujillo-Fuenning says, "I have been very much struggling with the fact that she doesn't want to write letters," and finds herself thinking, "You are supposed to be at this point by three and a half or four, and if you don't do it, you're never going to." 

What Trujillo-Fuenning struggles with is something called other-oriented perfectionism. (You may have seen a shorter piece I wrote about the phenomenon for the Atlantic back in July.) Other-oriented perfectionism bears similarity to self-oriented perfectionism, when a person puts tremendous pressure on themselves to be perfect and then self-flagellates when they can't be. It's also a little bit like socially prescribed perfectionism, where one internalizes the need to be perfect thanks to perceived pressure from others.o

The big difference is that with other-oriented perfectionism, unrealistic expectations are directed at, well, others.

When a parent sets exacting standards for their child and assumes a critical attitude, it can change how they parent (to their child's detriment) and leave the parent bitter, resentful, and sometimes even wishing they'd never had children. That's particularly problematic in light of new research suggesting that both parental expectations and parental criticism have been on the rise. The impulse behind child-oriented perfectionism comes mostly from early life experiences and societal forces outside individuals' control, but understanding — and interventions — can help thwart it, improving the wellbeing of both parent and child.

What does other-oriented perfectionism look like?

Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., a psychologist at Brigham & Women's Hospital and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has a patient roster made up mostly of young doctors, some of whom are the targets of other-oriented perfectionists who are "looking around and wondering why everybody [they] work with is incompetent." For a supervisor like that, she said, "There is going to be an over-reliance on control, especially wanting to control how people do things."

The other-oriented perfectionist seems self-assured. They always know the best way to do things and everything would be splendid if only others weren't so flawed. 

"On the surface it looks like grandiosity," said Thomas Curran, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at London School of Economics and Political Science, "but at root, it's really a profound insecurity about place in the world and whether you're worth something." The other-oriented perfectionist's judgment, he said, is actually just "my way of projecting the things that I dislike in myself onto other people."

People become other-oriented perfectionists in a variety of ways discussed in the book "Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment." Oftentimes a cocktail of other types of perfectionism is to blame. Trujillo-Fuenning worries about her daughter's progress because she wants the best for her, but there's something more than that. "I had a friend who pointed out that her language, her enunciation, her knowledge is pretty advanced for her age," she explained, "And immediately, I had this sense of like, 'Ha!' It had nothing to do with me! Yet you still have a part of your brain that's like, 'She speaks well. That means I did my job right. If she reads early, I did my job right.'" The pressure Trujillo-Fuenning feels to be perfect requires being — and being perceived as — a perfect parent. "How you're doing as a parent is a reflection of who you are," she said, "There's no separation there in my head."

In a paper published in 2020, Konrad Piotrowski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at SWPS University in Poland, reported that both mothers and fathers there "tend to accept to a greater extent the mistakes and 'imperfection' of their children than those of their partner." But sometimes they don't. What seems to be the key determinant is which relationship—the romantic one or the parental one—is more strongly associated with the parent's self-esteem. Those who hang their identity on their parental role, like Trujillo-Fuenning, are more likely to experience child-oriented perfectionism than those who do not, Piotrowski theorized.

John Lockner's experience supports that idea. He was a stay-at-home dad for years and told me, "I kind of still am," since he works part-time and spends the rest of it with his two teenage sons. "It's definitely a struggle not to be on them all the time," he said, but he knows that's more about him than them. "I never wanted to be a manager, because I know I would expect my employees to do their best, and it would be very hard for me when they don't," he told me. As one of just a handful of dads involved at their old school, Lockner said, "I felt this pressure to be better, and because of that my kids needed to be better." With up-to-the-minute access to their assignments and grades through an online portal, he'd issue reminders on the drive to school: "You have to be sure to check on that and make sure it was turned in" or "You're going to ask for that extra credit, right?" And he'd grill them on test results as soon as they got into the car at pickup. 

But now, he said, "I'm kind of working on myself, to let some of that go."

The impact of other-oriented perfectionism on children

That's likely a good thing for his kids. Curran, the British perfectionism researcher, looked at a questionnaire that's been given to cohorts of young people for decades. He and his team found that current college students perceive that their parents were more expectant than past generations — which is problematic, because studies (old and new) tie a caregiver having performance-oriented goals to controlling, critical parenting. 

Though the research is murky, because different forms of perfectionism both overlap and function in distinct ways, children of parents who are perfectionists likely have higher odds of developing psychological distress, including anxiety and depression. Even when the impact falls short of clinical classification, children whose parents expect them to be perfect often grow up in homes characterized by conflict and tension. "It's going to be a pressure cooker," Curran told me.

The end result is often another generation of perfectionists. A 2017 study of 159 father-daughter dyads found a tie between "controlling fathers who demand perfection" and perfectionist daughters. And Curran's own research has found that as parents' expectations and criticism have increased, so too have rates of adolescent perfectionism. 

We make jokes about perfectionism. (Did you hear the one about the perfectionist who walked into a bar? Apparently, it wasn't set high enough.) But it's a truly stressful way to live, Dr. Dattilo said, "Always striving to prove that you are capable, to prove that you are worthy, prove that you are successful based on other people's evaluations."

It should come as no surprise then, that there are, in Curran's words, "huge, uncharacteristically strong correlations" between perfectionism and psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and anorexia.

"The data's never that clean," he told me. 

Gayani DeSilva knows what it feels like to be one of those data points. "My parents really did put a lot of pressure on me as a kid to be perfect," recalled the child and adolescent psychiatrist who practices in Southern California. "I had to have straight As, couldn't have an A-minus." 

When she carried a D in Calculus at one point, "I was so afraid that I actually thought that my parents were going to kill me." Now looking back with a therapist's eye, she said, "I couldn't imagine them actually physically harming me, I just knew that I was gonna die." 

She internalized their exacting standards, "There was just no room for anything other than what they expected." And when she couldn't meet them, she said, "I faced all this guilt, like, 'Why couldn't I do it?'" 

Josh McKivigan, a behavioral health therapist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, sees an impact at both ends of the economic spectrum. For kids of highly educated, well-off parents, he said, "You'd see them well put together, amazing grades, but behind the scenes, they're barely holding it together. The only type of school they feel is acceptable is an Ivy League. They say things like, 'I couldn't imagine going to UCLA.'" 

McKivigan also works with a refugee population. With these kids, he sees pressure to make something of a parent's dangerous immigration journey. They end up saying, "I gotta make this right. I can't let them down," McKivigan told me.  

But some kids don't develop perfectionism of their own, instead responding to a parent's pressure by rejecting their goals. After all, if someone is impossible to please, why bother trying? 

Nicole Coomber, Ph.D., an assistant dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said research on motivation explains why. 

"Autonomy is an important piece of this where you have to actually buy into whatever the goal is," she notes. Requiring that a child practice piano for hours each day when they'd rather be playing soccer "can really backfire," she added. Kids can end up feeling like their parent's project or product — and push back by quitting. No matter how much bravado accompanies that move, there's often also a sense of having let themselves and their parents down.

DeSilva failed her first year of medical school, she said, "because I just didn't know how to ask for help." After a car accident, she quit residency and then spent two years in therapy: "Once I was able to admit, 'I'm not perfect,' I was successful at pretty much everything I wanted to do, and I didn't have to be anxious about it. I knew I could do it, whereas before, when I had to be perfect, I was really insecure." 

After she worked through her perfectionism, she said, "I was trying for my own standard, my own goals, my own desires, instead of somebody else's standard for me."

Other-oriented perfectionism is bad for parents too, but they can change

Child-oriented perfectionist tendencies aren't just bad for kids. Trujillo-Fuenning started to feel burned out by her high standards in the parenting realm. The cumulative effect of a thousand little maximizations, like "trying to make sure they were eating the right things every meal," became overwhelming and depleting. "To be honest, that's part of why I went back to work," she told me.

In his 2020 study, Piotrowski found that parents who target their children with other-oriented perfectionism tend to display higher levels of stress, dissatisfaction with parenthood, and feeling so burdened by the parental role that they regret parenthood entirely. He explained, "For mothers characterized by increased other-oriented perfectionism, family life is probably associated with many frustrations and stress, hence the focus on alternative visions of themselves that seem to be better than [being] a parent." 

When she starts trying to work on literacy again, Trujillo-Fuenning said, "I have to pull back and remind myself, if she's fighting you, just let it go." The same thing goes for micromanaging her kids' appearance. "I'm catching my own insecurities of like, 'You don't look well put together. People are going to look at you and think I'm not taking care of you.'" But to avoid acting on those impulses requires "a constant mental check," she told me.

Every now and then Lockner's wife would say, "You're being too hard on them. You are expecting too much." But that doesn't seem to be what made him change. His sons are at an all-boys school now, and, Lockner said, "Being around other groups of dads made a difference. Listening to how they act, and how their kids are, made me think, 'Maybe I can ease up a little. My kids really are pretty good.'" 

This sort of shift is what Curran sees happening in society as a whole—only in reverse.

Other-oriented perfectionist parents aren't the only ones ratcheting up expectations and pressure. Some parents don't want to push, Curran said, "but they feel like they have to in this world where elite college is harder to access, where you basically have an economy where the middle class is downwardly mobile with increasing costs of living and stagnated income, and you've got chronic and increasing inequality." 


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And the pressure can be even more intense for parents like Eric L. Heard, author of "Reflections of an Anxious African American Dad." He described feeling "the need for immediate feedback" from his son's teachers: "I always held a fear that I would not address some problem and he would head down a well-worn road of destruction" for Black men, he wrote. "My mind was haunted by the crippling thought of how I would be judged .... I would wear a permanent brand … a large white D for being a deadbeat dad who couldn't save his son." 

If you're a parent ruminating on the odds stacked against your child, it is rational to drive them to work harder, achieve more, and be better. Other parents react the same way, the result of which is a frenzied, fearful "rug rat race." 

Once that starts to kick in, Curran said, "it's really hard to stop, at a societal level. It creates an echo chamber where everybody's engaging in unhealthy behaviors and no one wins." 

He doesn't just mean that we all lose when we succumb to perfectionism. It also just plain doesn't work. 

"Everybody's engaging in this frantic upward comparison, and no one gains an advantage," he said. "We just move the average of what's expected further and further. It's looking bad."

But individuals can push back against a trend of overwhelmed young people and parents who, like the old Lockner, feel no choice but to be "the bad guy." Now that he's backed off, he said, "It's easier on me. It's easier on them." They do more for themselves, and "they seem more willing to do stuff if I'm not on them all the time." Truth be told, he likes himself more now.

Therapists can help their clients get there. Dr. Dattilo would tell an other-oriented perfectionist they need to believe it when someone says, "I'm doing the best I can." Parents can interrogate their perfectionism in psychotherapy: Why is having a perfect child so important to me? Where did this need come from? And cognitive-behavioral therapists push people to fact-check their anxiety: What level of pressure is really necessary to prepare your child to live a good life? Is parental pressure truly the most effective way to forestall your fears? What will happen if you just back off?

When it came to parenting her son, DeSilva, the perfectionist-turned-psychiatrist, said she made a conscious decision. "I was going to raise him to have his own ideas and his own set of standards and really, for me to learn about and help him develop his strengths. And also, to really be comfortable with his weaknesses and vulnerabilities." That puts her at odds with her own parents. When it comes to her son's homework, they think, "It's your job. You have to make sure his homework is done," she said. His grandparents even tell her to fix it for him "so it's correct." Instead, she explained to her son the consequences of not doing homework, or not doing it well, and let him decide. "He didn't like it that his teacher was upset with him. So the next time he did his homework, he did it as best he could."

Tying it all together

Yet individual parents can't reverse course alone. Putting aside economic inequality for a minute, Curran said, "I think if the pressures of things like standardized testing — for young people to perform perfectly in school at such a young age — could be recalibrated downwards" it would take pressure off parents too. He called online grade portals "even scarier."

 If kids were just allowed to learn, to be, without all the tracking, assessing, and ranking, maybe more parents would feel like they can afford to break — and encourage their kids to break — the link between one's accomplishments and one's worth.

As Curran talked, I realized that much of the ground we've covered in my Are We There Yet? column is more related than I'd thought. Pressure on parents, including around the "one right way" to parent, produces intensive parenting and lack of autonomy for kids, and it also contributes to parents' perfectionism and even abusive behavior, all of which lead to faltering mental health in adolescents, often with their own perfectionism as the mechanism. It's a perfect storm for stressed out, sexless parents who worry they don't measure up raising stressed out, helpless kids who worry they don't measure up. To borrow Curran's words, "It's all interconnected."


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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Are We There Yet Children Parenting Perfectionism Psychology Reporting