Organizing Theory & Artistry

10 Psychological Hang-Ups in Perfectionist Parents

One aspect of perfectionist parenting I wanted to be sure to address this month is how to explain to a child that their perfectionist parent really is not reacting to a deficiency in the child but rather a personal, unresolved psychological issue in the parent.

For young children, especially, this can be hard to understand. When you have an important person in your life, like a parent, yelling at you or expressing disappointment, you can’t help but think that your parent’s disappointment is all your fault and that if you only could be better you could make your parents happy.

A great book on perfectionist parenting is The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and be Perfectly Satisfied, written by Brad Sachs, Ph.D., father of three and a family psychologist. In this insightful book, Dr. Sachs takes you into his practice and gives you detailed insight on some of the problems his patients have experienced and resolved. He also gives exercises for the perfectionist parent to complete to understand the roots of their perfectionism and how to move past them toward a more healthy relationship with his/her child.

I wanted to share 10 examples from the book of parental psychological hang-ups that influenced a perfectionist parenting approach.

1. A mother does not want to allow her daughter to give up her soccer regimen and pursue the art lessons the daughter wants. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize that the mother has clung to soccer as the only positive bond she has, or will ever have, with her daughter. Dr. Sachs helps the mother and daughter reconnect through other activities the daughter is interested in.

2. A father becomes upset with his 4-year old son, believing that every disobedience is his son’s purposeful means of making him miserable. “However much I give him, he wants more. Whatever I do for him is never enough. And he just doesn’t listen to me.” Dr. Sachs determines that the father is resurrecting his own deceased father in his son and attributing his father’s “never good enough” disposition to his son. “I think you would feel more love for your son if you felt less anger toward your father,” Dr. Sachs advises. The therapy Dr. Sachs prescribes helps the father to process his emotions toward his own father and to see his son as something other than the “ghost of his deceased grandfather.”

3. A mother has always struggled with hostility and frustration toward her son. Dr. Sachs helps her process that a past abortion the mother had, which she kept secret from everyone, is causing her to view her son’s behavior as punishment for terminating her prior pregnancy. Dr. Sachs helps the mother to grieve for her lost baby and reprocess her son “as a growing boy who needed some instruction in how to handle his mental and physical energies rather than as a dangerous spy who had been assigned to extract payment from her for a regrettable decision from her past.”

4. A father struggles with his 3-year old son’s tantrums when he drops him off and picked him up from day care. Dr. Sachs helps the father to realize that the father is processing a form of separation anxiety stemming from the fact that the father is adopted and never knew his own birth parents. Leaving his son at day care was somehow reigniting a memory in the dad of being abandoned by his birth parents.

5. A mother struggles with how to control fighting between her two preteen daughters. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize that she is siding with the younger, quieter daughter trying to correct the wrongs the mother felt from her own siblings in the past.

6. A mother is worried about her son being bullied on the playground. Dr. Sachs helps the mother realize she has linked her son with her younger brother who was also bullied as a child and who later came out as a homosexual, something the mother still has a hard time accepting. Dr. Sachs helps the mother distinguish her son from her brother and develop appropriate self-confidence strategies.

7. A mother and father seek counseling for their 8-year old daughter who inexplicably has been soiling herself. Dr. Sachs helps the family realize that the father’s recent job loss and increased fighting between the mother and father has led the daughter to create a problem to deflect tension away from their marriage.

8. A mother and father are concerned that their 11-year old son is only interested in flying airplanes and is not doing well in school or pursuing other interests like sports or music. Dr. Sachs determines that the mother is far more concerned about this than the father. Dr. Sachs helps the mother learn that she subconsciously is trying to make her son into the type of boy that will gain praise and appreciation from the mother’s parents and that the mother still harbors resentment that her younger brother was favored by her parents.

9. A mother and father are concerned about the eating habits and weight gain in their adopted 8-year old daughter. Dr. Sachs helps them to process that they never finished grieving their infertility and accepting that their daughter’s shape reflects her cultural heritage rather than their own genes.

10. A father obsesses over his son’s “effeminate” appearance. Dr. Sachs doesn’t agree with the father’s perception and helps the father to realize that the father has not processed sexual abuse the father suffered as a young child by a male neighbor and is transferring this fear to his son.

As you can see, many parents are carrying around heavy and deep psychological wounds from their past that end up manifesting in their relationships with their children. If you are a child reading this, I hope it helps you to see that these wounds are nothing that you can change or that you caused.

If you are a parent reading this, you may be thinking, “Oh, great, more blame the parents advice!” And it is…kind of, but also a reminder that we have a responsibility as parents to examine our own emotions and do the hard work it takes to try to correct our own misperceptions.

Dr. Sachs sounds like a very special family psychologist—one with an unusual gift for identifying and solving complex emotional problems. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“This book is about forgiving, even embracing, imperfection, for I believe the search for the ideal is the enemy of the achievable and realizable. Once we let go of the image of the perfect family and accept ourselves and each other for who we are, we will become the best and most loving parents a child could ask for.”

–Brad E. Sachs, Ph.D., The Good Enough Child

Do you carry around hang-ups that are influencing your parenting approach? Have you seen this in your own family or friends? Please share in the comments.