Perfectionism can be passed from parents to children through socialisation practices

As more young people are becoming perfectionistic, so too are they likely to increasingly pass these tendencies onto their own children.
- Dr Tom Curran
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Perfectionism can be passed intergenerationally from parents to children through the socialisation practices parents use when interacting with their children, a new study from the London School of Economics (LSE) has found.

Perfectionism, a personality characteristic that includes a combination of striving for flawlessness and overly critical self-evaluation, is increasing among young people and can lead to compromised mental and physical health.

The study finds that a form of socialisation called ‘parental conditional regard’ contributes towards child perfectionism. This is where parents grant love and affection when their child has met their expectations but withdraw love and affection when they do not.

The researchers argue that this form of socialisation teaches children that self-esteem and belonging are easily lost, intermittently acquired and conditional on the approval of others. As a result, children learn to set themselves excessive standards and become preoccupied with the avoidance of mistakes because doing so helps to evade feelings of guilt and shame.

This is the first study to research the transmission of perfectionism from parent to child through ‘parental conditional regard’.  Previous research has instead focused on the direct transmission of perfectionism through social learning.

The authors suggest that parent perfectionism contributes to child perfectionism because perfectionist parents are more likely to employ ‘conditional regard’, particularly when the parent’s desire to be perfect is self-orientated rather than coming from the social environment.

Commenting on the findings, study co-author Dr Tom Curran from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE said: “These findings are important because they indicate that parents pass on their own perfectionistic tendencies to their offspring both through direct imitation and via the withholding of affection when children have failed to live up to their high standards. As more young people are becoming perfectionistic, so too are they likely to increasingly pass these tendencies onto their own children.”

To conduct the research, 115 parent-child pairings completed a questionnaire where their levels of perfectionism were measured. The questionnaire included five items on self-orientated perfectionism (eg: “One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do”) and five items on socially prescribed perfectionism (eg: “People expect nothing less than perfection from me”). Items were responded to on a seven-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Perceived parental conditional regard was measured in children using another questionnaire which asked them to assess the degree to which they perceived their mother (five items) and father (five items) to be conditionally regarding. 

For a copy of the paper, A test of social learning and parent socialization perspectives on the development of perfectionism, please click here.

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