If you carry the burden of perfectionism in parenting, know that you are not alone, but in the company of caregivers trying their best all over the world.
Fortunately, science shows that parenting mistakes are not only inevitable, but actually helpful and necessary in building a strong parent-child connection and resilient kids! So, shifting our goal from being the perfect parent to connecting with our kids can help shift us out of the rigidity of perfectionism.
Why do I feel a drive to be perfect?
(Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want to nerd out on the science!)
Perfectionism exists in the brain and nervous system as a hypervigilance to mistakes and fear of failure. Typically the roots of perfectionism grow from childhood experiences in which a mistake led to overwhelming pain or a message of needing to behave in a certain way to be seen as “good”. Through implicit emotional memory and our nervous system, we embody a narrative that mistakes are unsafe.
If mistakes have been experienced as unsafe in the past, then the real or even imagined encounter with one will mobilize our defensive systems to keep us safe. The emotional experience of this shift will likely be one of fear, panic, anger, guilt, shame, or avoidance. This shift into one of our defence systems is simultaneously a shift out of our social engagement system. From this posture we are less able to accurately read the cues of others or provide cues of safety and connection ourselves; our body is focused on survival! The double-edged sword of striving to be a perfect parent is that it actually decreases our physiological capacity to be connected and respond accurately to our child’s needs.
While we need our nervous system to do the work of keeping us safe, we also need some strategies to help us shift out of the defensive posture and into one of safety and connection when we find ourselves there unnecessarily.
One strategy that shifts us back into our social engagement system is to pause to simply notice what’s happening and ask ourselves questions. The acts of observing our internal experience and engaging curiosity rely on higher level brain regions that go offline in the face of threat. By intentionally bringing these regions online, we begin to shift back into connection.
When we feel safe and connected, we are physiologically freed to see, hear, and respond to the cues our infants give about their needs.
So what happens when I “get it wrong”?
The beautiful and freeing truth is that neither our relationship with our children nor our children’s emotional development is dependent on us getting it right 100% of the time.
In fact, studies have shown that parents only need to get it right 30%-50% of the time to maintain a secure relationship with their children. To be clear, that’s as many or more errors than accuracies!
When we respond to our children’s cues accurately, we reinforce their sense of safety in the world and the parent-child relationship as one that is accepting, connected, and where needs can be met.
When our response to our childrens’ cues do not match the need, an inevitable experience of disconnection occurs. While this may be painful to you and your infant in the moment, it invites an experience of parent led repair and reconnection.
By acknowledging the disconnect and soothing the accompanied emotions, we engage relational repair. In later stages of development repair may also include listening to your child’s experience or modeling an apology if necessary.
The repetitive experience of disconnection and repair actually embeds a narrative in yours and your child’s brain and nervous system that says “I can survive disconnection, my relationships can survive disconnection, and I can trust that we can get through moments of pain.”
These are the building blocks of relational and emotional resilience!
Parents, hear this: never making a mistake with your child would actually be detrimental to their development and your relationship with them. So let’s give ourselves permission to embrace the resilience-building rhythms of connection, disconnection, and repair.
If you are suffering under the burden of perfectionism in your reproductive or parenting journey, our therapists would love to work with you to move towards healing, connection, and growth in this area!
Hughes, D. A., & Baylin, J. (2012). Brain-based parenting: The neuroscience of
caregiving for healthy attachment. WW Norton & Company.
For more on Polyvagal Theory: https://www.stephenporges.com/
Susan S. Woodhouse, Julie R. Scott, Allison D. Hepworth, Jude Cassidy. Secure Base Provision: A New Approach to Examining Links Between Maternal Caregiving and Infant Attachment. Child Development, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13224
Tronick, E. & Gold, C. (2020). The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust