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The pitfalls of perfect

It’s perfectly natural for parents to want their children to succeed in school, on the soccer field and everywhere in between. However, getting caught up in expecting perfection can seriously backfire.

Mom critical of daughter

Experts share their advice on how we can encourage our kids without pressuring them to achieve so-called perfection.

Critical parenting leads to self-critical kids

Emma Seppala, Ph.D., research psychologist and the associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, says that overly critical parenting can actually be counterproductive and lead to children becoming very critical of themselves.

Dr. Seppala says, “Self-criticism actually leads to lower productivity and resilience. Self-criticism [or] competition actually ends up making a person give up in the face of failure while self-compassion (treating oneself as one would a friend, understanding that failure is human and being gentle and mindful with one’s emotions) leads to resilience, perseverance in the face of failure and greater well-being.”

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Joel B. Ingersoll, Ph.D., of the Center for Psychological Health & Fitness, LLC, agrees that over-criticism leads to self-critical and self-conscious children. “Rather than developing a sense of mastery and confidence, a risk is that they become anxious about making decisions and questioning whether anything they do is good enough,” he shares. “Because parents are kids’ first social role models, children absorb parental criticism like a sponge and it leads to shape their self-concept. If their self-concept evolves as overly self-critical the risk becomes the child not learning how to effectively fail because rather than saying ‘I failed at this task,’ they identify themselves as ‘a failure.’ Subsequently they may avoid discussing academic, social and personal challenges with parents, experience symptoms of anxiety and depression and develop a range of acting out behavior,” Dr. Ingersoll adds.

Walking the fine line

Dr. Ingersoll notes that it can be challenging to define that line between helping your children succeed and pushing them too hard. However, he advises, “It’s the point when realistic expectations exceed their developmental level. A good question for parents to consider in defining the difference is, ‘Is this about me or my child?’ Oftentimes over-critical parents set kids up to fulfill their own unfulfilled goals, thus putting a tremendous amount of pressure on them.”

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He also notes that you can watch your own behavior for “red flags” that you are being too hard on your child. “One of the most significant red flags to consider in recognizing moments of being overly critical is our mood. If we are communicating expectations to our children that are unrealistic and overly critical it will likely be communicated with a tense, frustrated mood.”

He continues, “Another red flag is the language that we use in conversation with them. Remember, they are children, and depending on their age may not be at a developmental stage to process and understand information like adults. So a good question for parents to consider here is, ‘Am I communicating in a way that my 6-year-old can understand?'”

Foster self-compassion versus self-criticism

According to Dr. Seppala, recent research on “self-compassion” has shown it to be far superior to self-criticism and competition. She suggests parents help their children foster self-compassion as a way to help them succeed. “Self-compassion does not mean being lenient on oneself to the point of laziness — sometimes self-compassion means being strict and disciplined with oneself,” she shares. “The idea is to treat oneself as one would a friend, with an eye on their well-being.”

Encourage versus push

Instead of pushing your children in any area, encourage them to do their best and foster in them a desire to learn and be independent. Dr. Ingersoll says, “Parents can begin early to encourage their children to do their best by allowing them to develop a sense of independence and mastery. It’s tricky, as we live in such a fast-paced world and will step in to assist our kids in accomplishing a task for the sake of time.” He gives the example of fastening a 4-year-old into her car seat. If the child expresses an interest in wanting to do it herself, it’s important that the parent listens to that desire to be independent and let her try it on her own.

He adds, “Additionally, when they accomplish something — whether in school, athletically or artistically — it’s important that we encourage them to be proud of themselves. We have a tendency to say to our kids, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ which is a wonderful compliment. However, if we want to encourage our kids to do their best, it’s equally as important that the child be proud of their own accomplishments. ‘Be proud of yourself’ is a simple yet powerful suggestion to a child because it leads them to consider their personal accomplishments and sets them up for developing self-confidence.”

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Reconnect with your child

Once you’ve realized that you’ve been overly critical or pushed your child too hard, you can reconnect with them by first recognizing that they are not perfect — and neither are you. Dr. Ingersoll says, “The best approach to mend a perceived broken bond is to be honest with your child. It will likely be a relief to kids knowing that their parents are not perfect. So acknowledge that you made a mistake and then take the time to teach them. Remember that parents are the most significant role models for their children, so take the time and change your approach to be a better listener, more supportive and more of a guide.”

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