By Melissa Riddle Chalos

At its best, parenthood is the most beautiful, meaningful role you can take on. That little baby takes over your life, and nothing will ever be quite the same again. It can also be the most exhausting, frustrating and difficult thing you’ll ever attempt to do.

Wooden toy helicopterWhen parenthood is status-driven, competitive and fueled by perfectionism, it’s a life-altering, lose-lose situation. Helicopter parenting — the kind that attempts to control and dictate every thought and action of a child — is a disaster in the works. It is a self-defeating approach that magnifies the challenges and snuffs out the joys of parenthood, leaving parents depressed and children struggling with mental health challenges during the most critical stages of development.

It Wreaks Havoc in Parents

Perhaps it’s true that no parent ever starts out to become a perfectionist. So, when it happens, it’s largely because the new parent acting out of how he or she was parented. If you grew up in a pressure-cooker of high parental expectations or under the care of a controller, its likely your sense of self was wounded by the weight of it. And you may be fulfilling the same role, even if you think you’re completely unlike your parents.

If there’s any question as to whether you are parenting as a perfectionist, psychologist Randy O. Frost, a professor at Smith College, makes it easy to understand. Having spent the past two decades defining the dimensions of perfectionism, Frost identifies these six facets:

  • Concern about mistakes. To perfectionists, mistakes are equal to failure, and in their minds, failure means losing the respect of others.
  • Personal standards are high. Not only do perfectionists set incredibly high standards, they also place an unreasonable amount of significance on those standards when they self-evaluate.
  • Parental expectations. Perfectionists often believe their parents goals for them are set very high.
  • Parental criticism. Perfectionists feel overly criticized by their parents.
  • Doubting actions. Perfectionists don’t have faith in their ability to carry out tasks.
  • Organization. Order is often highly valued by perfectionists.1

Perfectionist parents create an environment of impossible expectation and control. Those who feel the need to control every thought and action of their children are incapable of enjoying what they control.

Perfectionism Swallows Children’s Sense of Self

When a child’s sense of self hinges on what he can accomplish, he begins to believe he’s only as good as what he achieves. Driven from within to reach seemingly impossible standards, children can become compliant and self-focused, which impacts their ability to forge healthy relationships with others.

Children of perfectionists learn to hide their mistakes. Unfortunately, this robs them of crucial feedback that not only confirms self-worth, but also the value of learning through mistakes. They also learn to hide emotionally, to conceal their feelings and actions and to pretend that everything is OK when it is not. All these factors, over time, can result in:

  • High levels of depression and anxiety. These children are more likely to be overly critical of themselves, which only increases over time and is directly correlated growing depression or anxiety.2
  • Continued ADHD symptoms. A recent study revealed that sustained critical parenting is likely associated with the continuance of ADHD symptoms into young adulthood, and many continue to struggle with symptoms.3

Grounding the Helicopter

Unfortunately, helicopter parenting is the social norm in our competitive society, as parents tend to equate success with economic advantage. But somewhere in the chaos of it all, to make a change, parents have to reflect on what they value most.

“True success hinges less on getting everything right than on how you handle getting things wrong,” Marano writes in Psychology Today. “This is where creativity, passion and perseverance come into play. In a flat world, you don’t make people powerful by pushing them to be perfect but by allowing them to become passionate about something that compels their interest.”2

So, how can parents who tend to struggle with perfectionist parenting begin to depressurizing and to embrace imperfection? By adopting what may seem like unnatural behaviors. But what seems unnatural at first will achieve wonders in terms of mental health for both parents and children. Here are five to get you started:

1. Model positivity.

Children learn not by what they hear from their parents but by what they see. Let your kids see you try new things and make mistakes. Let them see you embrace failure with a positive, self-accepting attitude. Help them see that only by trial and error do we learn and grow.

2. Acknowledge feelings.

When frustrations arise, as they always do with children under pressure to succeed, talk to your child about how she is feeling. Express understanding and empathy and help your child learn to give herself the gift of understanding and compassion when she struggles to achieve.

3. Focus on effort.

Keep the main thing the main thing. Praise how hard your child has worked, her kindness to others or her ability to share, rather than whether or not she scored the goal, made the team or won the award. When you praise children for the effort they make, it motivates them to continue trying.

4. Be clear that love is unconditional

Make it clear — in your words and in your actions — that your love is not dependent on your child’s grades, popularity, awards or anything else.

5. Teach perspective to help dispel anxiety

Give children the tools of perspective. Ask them productive questions like “Why do you think you did so well this time?” or “What got you interested in this?” Being specific and positive builds their self-esteem. Help them see the value of making mistakes and being OK with trying new things just for the experience of it. This gift will serve them well, even into adulthood.


1 Marano, Hara Estroff. “Pitfalls of Perfectionism.” Psychology Today. March 2008.

2 Young, Joel. “The Effects of Helicopter Parenting.” Psychology Today. January 25, 2017.

3 Eunjung Cha, Ariana. “Overly critical parenting linked with persistent ADHD in kids.” Washington Post. February 9, 2016.