It is not unusual for a young person to perceive her parents as more perfect than they are. If your child is under the impression that accomplishments come very easily to you, she may feel that she must be perfect in order to be valued. Although she can come to understand that you are flawed like everyone else, this is a process of parent-child development and takes time.
One way to convey to your children that you are human and fallible is to describe your own life experiences, referring not only to your successes but also to your struggles and failings. Try to send the message that perfectionism is not just a motor that keeps running; it comes with its own set of fears and distresses such as, “Will I really be the best? What will happen if I’m not?” Revealing these and other costs of your perfectionism can pave the way for dialogue between you and your child. Some parents find discussing their pasts viable while others don’t, so if it doesn’t work well for you, don’t hold it against yourself but instead realize that there is more than one approach to communicating your experiences.
As an alternative or addition to disclosure, try engaging your child in a joint activity that will allow each of you to see various aspects of the other. This is not about competing, but rather about learning to play, about building that sandcastle with imperfections; in fact, your mistakes may ease her fears of making her own.
Focus on enjoying each other in the process of the activity. Your efforts to spend time with her in this manner can be effective whether she is a child, a teenager, or an adult. It is a good idea to suggest an activity that will appeal to her even if it is not your first choice. Tennis, gardening, a home-improvement project, visiting a museum-the possibilities are many. Remember to keep your goals realistic; instead of expecting your joint activity to repair your relationship with your child, try to think of it as a stepping-stone.
David B. Herzog, M.D., Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., Pat Cable, RN
David B. Herzog, M.D., is the Harvard Medical School Endowed Professor of psychiatry in the field of eating disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Debra L. Franko, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Northeastern University and the associate director of the Harris Center at Massachusetts General Hospital
Pat Cable, RN, is the director of publications at the Harris Center.