A Psychologist Explains Why It's Bad To Be An Overly Perfectionistic Parent

The perfectionism path is a dead end for both parents and children.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 12, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences describes what parental burnout may look and feel like, and what you can do to protect your family from its harmful effects.

"The global rise of individualism has placed a heavy burden on recent generations, encouraging people to compete with each other," explain researchers Gao-Xian Lin, Dorota Szczygiel, and Konrad Piotrowski. "In response to this individualistic climate, more and more people set excessively high expectations for themselves as parents."

The researchers suggest that overly perfectionistic parents are at risk of experiencing some, if not all, of the following symptoms of parental burnout:

  1. Intense exhaustion in which the mere thought of what to do for or with the children appears to be a mountain
  2. Saturation in which they feel that they no longer want to be a parent
  3. Emotional disconnection from their child or children
  4. Guilt for not being the parent they were or wanted to be

According to the researchers, experiencing these feelings for three months or more, along with other stress-related bodily symptoms, is a sure-shot sign of parental burnout.

What can be done to stave off its ill effects? The authors found that parents who are able to identify, express, and regulate their emotions (in other words, parents who possess high emotional intelligence) are less likely to fall into the trap of perfection-induced parental burnout.

"The best way to prevent the negative consequences of parental perfectionism is to draw parents' attention to it directly and convince parents to stop comparing their own children to an unrealistic image of an ideal child or setting unrealistic expectations for their children," they explain.

The researchers also suggest working on your emotional intelligence to help moderate your tendency toward expecting perfection from your children and yourself.

"Emotional intelligence can be increased through short training or therapy sessions," they explain. "This increase can lead immediately to improvements in subjective and physical well-being and in the quality of social and marital relationships. Even more encouraging is that such beneficial effects can even last for over a year."

Other research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests parental burnout is a relatively straightforward function of risks versus resources. In other words, when risk factors begin to outweigh protections, parents are more prone to burnout.

To address such imbalances, experts suggest a simultaneous approach of increasing resources and reducing risk factors. For instance, if parental chores are weighing you down, consider the help of a nursery. Or, if parental recommendations (for example, five fruits and vegetables per day, no television before age six, etc.) are doing more harm than good, consider relaxing your notion of what it means to be a good parent.

According to psychologist Simon Sherry, there's no real benefit to being an overly perfectionistic parent. If anything, you might be setting your child up for psychological problems down the road.

"In my practice as a clinical psychologist, I see young adults pushed and criticized by demanding parents to the point of making those young adults mentally ill," says Sherry. "In fact, a family environment characterized by parental criticism and demands is an incubator for perfectionism and illness in children."

Instead, Sherry advises parents to:

  • Communicate to your child that you value them not only based on what they do but who they are
  • Try to be less controlling, critical, and overprotective of children
  • Teach children to tolerate and learn from their mistakes
  • Emphasize hard work and discipline over the pursuit of perfection

A full interview with the researchers discussing parental burnout can be found here: How to know if you are experiencing parental burnout