Overbearing dads fuel perfectionism in daughters, moms influence sons: York-UBC study 

mother and child discipline perfectionism

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications

Women are more likely to be perfectionists when raised by an overbearing father whereas men are more likely to exhibit perfectionism when raised by an overbearing mother, according to a joint study from York University and the University of British Columbia (UBC).  

It’s the first study of its kind to investigate how the way mothers and fathers bond with their sons and daughters – and how their cold or controlling behaviour – can act as a potential predictor of perfectionist tendencies in young adults.

Gordon Flett
Gordon Flett

“Our research underscores the influence gender-specific parental behaviours can have in the psychological development of children and their risk of perfectionism as they grow older,” said Gordon Flett, the study’s co-author and a professor of psychology in the Faculty of Health at York University. “Perfectionists experience higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. The pressure children feel to be perfect is more likely to come from the expectations of one parent, with gender as a key factor.” 

Using psychological questionnaires, the researchers surveyed over 400 men and women undergraduate students at UBC. While their analysis revealed this pattern of perfectionism in father-daughter and mother-son relationships, Flett points out there are always exceptions.  

“Perfectionism runs in the family, but further research is needed to fully understand its origins, how it can be fostered differently in boys and girls based on parental bonding behaviours and the gender dynamics at play in child rearing,” he said.  

The study supports previous research by Flett and his longtime collaborator, UBC’s Paul Hewitt, among others, that theorizes an individual can develop perfectionistic traits to compensate for unmet emotional needs from harsh parenting.  

It’s also the latest research contribution for Flett in a career that has spanned over three decades studying perfectionism. Flett’s expert advice to parents is they should strive for excellence – and never perfection – in their kids.  

“There is a subtle, but tremendous difference,” he explains. “Even successful perfectionists never seemed to be satisfied and always focus on what they could have done better. Striving for excellence means parents can model healthy reactions to mistakes that their child can then mimic or imitate.”   

The study, “Father-daughter and mother-son relationships: Parental bonding behaviours and socially prescribed perfectionism in young adults,” was published earlier this year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Flett’s co-authors are Sabrina Ge (first author), Chang Chen, and Hewitt at UBC’s Perfectionism & Psychotherapy Lab.    

Flett and Hewitt recently co-wrote a book, Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Analysis, which considers the issues addressed in this study in more detail. The book was a finalist for the 2023 PROSE Awards.