Emotional Perfectionism: What Parents Need to Know (and Avoid)

Sitting across from my middle school aged daughter, I could see on her face that she was struggling. Her furrowed brow, her irritability, along with her quietness and her frustrated sighs, all told, were like beacons of unhappiness, calling for a mom intervention. Or so I thought. 

I watched her closely and proceeded with a barrage of questions. How are things at soccer? How are things with your friends; are you getting along lately? How about school; the workload sure can stress you out, right? Did you ever hear back on the social studies exam? After several shoulder shrug responses, I racked my brain for more questions. My head was wildly spinning with ideas. 

I could be an emotional perfectionist when it came to my children. (Shutterstock: fizkes)

My daughter assured me that it’s okay for her not be okay all the time

A few moments (and many questions) later, my daughter picked her head up, and looked me squarely in the eyes. “You know, it’s okay that I’m not happy sometimes, right? And, you don’t need to do anything about it.” 

It was one of those parenting moments where I say to myself, “clean up in aisle 15.” As in, listen to your daughter, sending a clear and coherent message about her experience of your parenting right now. Listen to her message. Embrace her experience of what you are doing and take a moment to self-check and decide if you need to shift your parenting course.  

Parents are well-intended when they try to solve their kids’ problems

Frankly, my daughter had nailed it. I was an “emotional perfectionist” when it came to my kids. I actually couldn’t stand when they were upset or unhappy. I’d crack jokes. I’d offer solutions. I’d pepper them with questions.

I was well intended. I figured I had so much wisdom and experience to impart that I could surely save my kids from some emotional angst and we could get everyone on an even emotional keel again, which felt safe to me. 

Here’s the kicker though. I practiced as a psychologist for years. I know better. I used to help parents to look out for their own emotional perfectionism in parenting and to keep it in check.

I know that emotional perfectionism is a double whammy; if the parent solves the problem for the kid, both the kid and the parent immediately feel better. However, with this comes a lost opportunity for a kid to struggle well and problem solve and emerge on the other side with some experience of their own.

Furthermore, it robs the parent of the opportunity to just sit back and show their kid that they believe in their ability to handle the situation. It’s subtle, but when you dive in to help, the undercurrent message is “I’m not sure you can handle this situation by yourself.” 

Expecting emotional perfectionism in kids puts a lot of pressure on them

Expecting emotional perfectionism in your kids also inadvertently places a lot of pressure on them. Pressure to keep emotional expression at bay, pressure to appear happy for the sake of others, and it subtly sends the message that the experience of negative emotions is less than, when, in fact, negative emotions are a commonplace and everyday experience. 

Keeping our own emotional perfectionism in check as parents is important. It creates space for our kids to learn to navigate difficult problems and difficult emotions. This is not to say that it’s a hands off approach when our kids are upset, but instead it is an approach of acceptance of their experience and a willingness to be there in the thick of it with them, with there being only one goal: available for support if needed or wanted.

A parent’s goal should be to be available for support if needed

Reading the room is important here. For me, the shoulder shrug responses from my daughter should’ve been enough for me to back off. She was sending the message that she wasn’t really receptive to help at that time.

I will often say to our now grown kids, are you looking for solutions or an empathetic ear? You might be surprised how many times they are just looking for an empathetic ear and will take off a short time later, solving problems on their own. 

It’s not a perfect road nor is it always a direct path, but I’d encourage you to look for emotional perfectionism in yourself, as a parent.

It quietly hangs around and becomes noisy at times and really can interfere with our true mission as parents to shepherd (not direct) our kids through life’s difficulties. But when you can see it in yourself and catch it, a window opens for your kids to have an opportunity to struggle well through something and this can be a valuable experience for everyone.

More Great Reading:

The Crushing Culture of Parental Expectations

This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional mental health advice from a qualified mental health provider for your specific situation. If this is something you or your child struggles with, consider scheduling with a therapist to discuss this, relative to your child and your specific situation. 

About Anne Suave

Anne Suave holds a Ph.D. in Clinical and School Psychology from Hofstra University and has worked over the years both in private practice and as an adjunct professor of psychology. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and traveling, but most of all, she enjoys spending time with her family: her husband, her two daughters and their family dog, a Wheaten Terrier named Maggie.

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