The Washington Post

Surviving — and preventing — a pressure-cooker childhood


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Last fall you had a column about a high school perfectionist who could have been me. I’m now in my 30s and long since healed thanks to great friends, an amazing therapist and a lot of time. But I’m afraid my own daughter will go through what I went through. I can remember feeling guilty about letting people down when I was a toddler (although high school is where the pressure compounded into an eating disorder).

As a parent, how do you see that and offer help . . . preferably long before it reaches such a crisis point? How do I make sure my kids know they are great even when they aren’t perfect?

Healed Perfectionist

A big part of it is to praise them for things they control, like hard work, vs. their gifts (looks, talent, intellect). The opening chapter of “Nurture Shock” (Bronson/Merryman) covers this nicely. Kids also need age-appropriate responsibilities so they derive self-worth through contributing, as opposed to winning or losing.

And since perfectionist tendencies are so deeply rooted in feelings and the validity thereof, also try, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (Faber/Mazlish).

Sorry to kick you to longer discourses on the topic, but raising kids to accept their flaws and feel comfortable sharing uncomfortable truths is not a column-size answer. It’s a style of communication oriented toward validating feelings without compromising toughness.

Give yourself some credit, too. You know what the pressure to be perfect feels like, and probably also understand what in your childhood environment caused it. That’s a blueprint for what to avoid.

Re: Perfectionists:

Now in my 30s, I realize quite a few of my problems with self-esteem and relationships stem from my parents’ not only being difficult to please, but from their reluctance to let my sister and me express a range of emotions. An adolescent might in anger tell you (shout, really) she hates you, but that is not a punishable offense. A kid that age typically doesn’t know how to express emotions — particularly the negative ones — without offending everyone around them. The parent getting angry about that just teaches children to suppress/hide emotion.


Agreed, thanks. Anger, criticism, ridicule, pegging affection to achievement — all of these can create a climate where failure doesn’t feel like an option.

Re: Perfectionists:

Keep your home calm and develop routines so your kids know what to expect. Often kids who grow up in chaos try to find ways to regain control over their lives through perfectionism. As someone who suffered from eating disorders, I used food as control when everything was falling apart around me. I could control how much food I put in my body. So I did that. I also felt guilty about letting people down from when I was a toddler. It’s no coincidence my parents divorced at that time. My life was in total chaos until adulthood, when I wasn’t at the whim of my parents’ decisions.

Anonymous 2

Another useful angle, thanks.

Even if “calm” isn’t possible, “safe” still is — with that defined as a place where kids aren’t punished for having inconvenient feelings, and where they aren’t expected to be more mature than they’re developmentally able to be.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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