Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

Our oldest son is just about perfect, but he seems a little down and withdrawn lately. Should we check in with him or just let him come and talk with us if he wants to?

Dear Barbara,

My older son is someone our friends have described as a “perfect child,” and we may have even told him that once or twice. He makes good grades in school, excels on the soccer team, does his chores and walks the dog every day. He has a good sense of humor, too, and jokes around a lot with his younger brother, who adores him. He had thought about taking drama this year, but it conflicted with his soccer practice. Lately he has seemed a little down, though, and quieter than usual. Should I check in with him or just let him talk to us if he has something on his mind?

Dr. Barbara Greenberg:

Dear correspondent,

Definitely have a talk with your son about what is on his mind. You could mention you have noticed he is more withdrawn lately and you wonder if anything is troubling him. Let him know you are there for him, and that he can talk to you about anything. “Perfect children” tend to suffer in silence, so let him know you don’t want him to feel pressure to be perfect. You can tell him you want him to feel comfortable taking risks and you are there to support him.

I have been hearing about this issue over and over again from the kids and adults labeled as the perfect children in their families. Most children want to please and be recognized for their accomplishments. Nonetheless, there is a hefty price to pay for being in that category. This price is paid in childhood and often throughout adulthood, long after the kids have left the childhood home.

Yes, most parents admit to having a favorite child, and that child is often the most accomplished and successful. These driven, talented, and hard-working kids make their parents feel both proud and effective as parents. They are often born with easier temperaments and require less prodding and reminders than their less-perfect siblings.

At first glance, they appear to have it easy. Life just seems to be much simpler for them. But let’s slow down just a bit here. There is a price that these children pay that parents often miss.

Here are 7 difficulties that seemingly perfect kids have in common. After reading these, parents may want to think twice about what it means to be the favorite or perfect child:

1. In an effort to remain the perfect child, these children may avoid activities or pursuits that they don’t excel at.

This makes a lot of sense. If their goal is to remain perfect, then why would they engage in a task that might compromise their reputation? This is a style that may last into adulthood, robbing one of the joys of activities that might be fun despite a lack of excellent performance. Maybe your son would like to give up his place on the soccer team to try his hand at drama but is worried about your reaction. If so, encourage him to do take drama (even if you would rather be out there cheering at his soccer games).

2. The perfect child may be suffering silently.

These children might not want to share issues about mental health struggles, problems with friends or trouble at school because they feel that there is no room for that. They may feel that that emotional space is to be occupied only by their siblings. Imagine what it must be like to have to struggle with no one to talk to.

3. Perfect kids often describe being painfully aware of the resentment of their siblings, who were frequently compared to them.

It sounds like your son has a great relationship with his younger brother, but in far too many instances, the ‘perfect child’ aura colors the sibling relationship in a very negative manner. These children may experience the resentment of their less-perfect siblings throughout childhood and adulthood.

4. Surprisingly, these children often feel misunderstood and invisible.

Yes, they have achieved quite a bit, but what about their feelings and perhaps silent struggles? In childhood, they may have inadvertently been taught to be good and quiet. This sort of message is never a good one and may lead to troubled relationships in adulthood fraught with avoidance and a lack of authenticity. 

5. Being labeled as perfect may be a set-up for self-destructive behavior.

After all, if children or adolescents feel that they don’t have permission to discuss their less-than-perfect thoughts and feelings, they may develop eating disorders, somatic symptoms, and a variety of other issues in order to both get the attention  they need and their needs met. Please keep this in mind before describing your offspring as perfect. Perfect is an almost impossible label to live with,

6. Consider that you are sending your children the wrong message about what is important in life.

Do you really want to teach your kids that straight A’s are more important than the quality of their relationships and the importance of being a good person with flaws and some rough edges? Everyone needs permission to be less than perfect.

7. Kids who feel pressure to be perfect often resent their parents.

Do you really want to create a fractured relationship with your children? I highly doubt it. Again, I suggest moving on to something way more realistic than perfection. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. And you will find that you love your less-than-perfect child just as much, and maybe even more.

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