The Achievement/Perfection Parent can be difficult to satisfy. If his child comes home with all A’s, he will say (or almost worse, convey through body language), “Next time I’ll expect to see A+.”
This parent has a few things in common with the narcissistic parent. In fact, many of her behaviors can seem similar. Many narcissistic parents are perfection-focused because they want their child to reflect well on them. In other words, “If my child is the best skater on the team, it makes me look really good.”
This narcissistic mirror effect is part of what motivates many Achievement/Perfection parents (we’ll call them AP parents for short), but for many, it is not. AP parents can be driven by a number of different factors.
Some AP parents pressure their children to achieve because they desperately want opportunities for their children that they did not have in their own childhoods. Many are acting out of their own feeling that they themselves must be perfect. Some are trying to live their own life through their child. Still other AP parents may be simply raising their child the way they themselves were raised because it is all they know.
To understand the different motivations of different AP parents, let’s visit 8-year-old Mandy, who is having a bad day. We’ll see the different reactions of different kinds of AP parents.
Mandy’s Achievement/Perfection Mom
Soccer practice just ended, and Mandy walks slowly toward the car while catching glimpses of her mom and coach speaking intensely. She knows her coach is telling her mother that she goofed around at practice today, distracted her teammates, and at one point actually smarted off to the coach.
AP Mom 1
“Mandy, how could you behave that way today? Now Coach Simpson might change her mind about recommending you for the Ivy League-Bound A team next year. Are you serious about soccer or not?! You need to write an apology note right now, and we need to fix this immediately!”
AP Mom 2
“Mandy, you know better than to act up in soccer practice. Your coaches see your potential, but if you don’t behave yourself you won’t keep improving your skills!”
AP Mom 3
“Mandy, I’m terribly disappointed in you. I’ve made many sacrifices so that you can go to this expensive school that really promotes its soccer team. If Coach Simpson starts to see you as a problem child you may ruin everything I’ve done for you. And every time you act up, it makes me look bad!”
Notice that all three of these reactions seem to, in some ways, have Mandy’s best interests in mind. These AP mothers are clearly concerned about their child and want the best for her. The problem is that all three moms are emotionally neglecting Mandy with their responses.
None of these responses addresses Mandy’s need to learn to control her impulses. None addresses the reasons for Mandy’s uncharacteristic acting-up behavior. Only Mandy knows that she has lately been excluded by her two best friends on the team, and has been dreading soccer practice for the entire last week.
None of these mother’s responses talks to Mandy about anything that matters to her. All of the responses address the parent’s needs, not Mandy’s. They address Mandy’s future, which she is too young to care about or even understand. They all miss a valuable opportunity for Mandy to learn something about herself, her nature, her feelings, and how to get along with friends, teammates and authority figures.
Over time, Mandy will absorb the simplistic message, “Be good so that you can be successful.” To comply, Mandy will have to squelch many of her own needs and feelings. This may work reasonably okay in childhood, but she will enter adolescence and adulthood with something missing inside; self-knowledge, emotional awareness, and self-love.
So now to answer our main question. Are all AP parents emotionally neglectful? Not necessarily.
Many parents of high-achieving kids, such as Olympic athletes, concert pianists or pro-league bound baseball players could be considered AP because they are driven and they support their child to be the best. But they may be doing so because their child is driven to accomplish. So the difference between a non-neglectful AP parent and a neglectful one is this: support.
A healthy AP parent is supporting her child to achieve what the child wants. An emotionally neglectful AP parent is pressuring her child to achieve what the parent wants.
When a child is treated by her AP parents as if her feelings and emotional needs don’t matter, a deeply personal part of herself is being denied. That part of her becomes like the elephant in the room. No one wants to see or hear from it, yet it’s the part of her which is most her.
The only way that children can adapt in these circumstances is to participate in the denial, and pretend that their emotional self doesn’t exist. No wonder emotionally neglected children grow up with an empty space in their sense of themselves, their love for themselves, and their ability to emotionally connect with others.
If you see yourself in this description of AP parents or child, I hope you will pause and think. Consider what you want, what you feel, and what is motivating you now.
If you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), now is your time to heal. If you are an AP parent, there are some powerful things you can do to make sure you stay connected and invested in supporting what your child wants.
To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire. To learn more about healing yourself and parenting your children free from emotional neglect, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.