Some parents are intolerant of imperfections because they confuse their children's identities with their own, says Ruth Ehrenkranz, a New York City psychoanalyst. "They think, 'If our child looks good, we look good,'" she says. "They cannot handle their kids' failures because they feel it makes them look like bad parents."
The message that kids need to be perfect can lead to serious problems, such as an erosion of self-esteem, a profound sense of failure, and lingering anger, says Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and an expert on perfectionism. When using the term perfectionist, he's not talking about people who hold high standards -- that's a good trait that can help parents give their children a wonderful life. Rather, he's referring to people who expect perfection of themselves or others and are mercilessly hard on themselves when they don't attain it. For perfectionists, there is no middle ground: Either they have achieved perfection or they are utter failures. "People who are perfectionistic don't really experience much satisfaction or happiness," says Dr. Hewitt.
The latest research from Dr. Hewitt and his colleagues is alarming: They've found that true perfectionists are at an increased risk for clinical depression, eating disorders, and suicide. Even worse, they are much more resistant to treatment because they don't want to appear weak.
For some reason, though, there's a pervasive myth in our culture that we must be perfect or we will have failed our children. "It's a funny kind of arrogance," says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, CT. "I've never done a single thing perfectly. What makes me think I can do the hardest job I'll ever do perfectly?"
Parents in overdrive
There are, of course, clear advantages to trying to be the best. It often means that parents are working especially hard to do a good job, says Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and author of Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life. When you've got a perfectionist at the helm, everything in the house tends to run more smoothly. "The meals get made, the homework gets done, and the uniform gets washed before the game," she says.