Mental Health

Pressure to Be a “Perfect Parent” Harms Children

Let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as a “perfect parent”—but that certainly doesn’t keep us from trying. Between internal expectations, societal pressures, and perceived judgment from family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, it’s not surprising that so many parents experience burnout trying to live up to impossible standards. But a new study from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has found that the unhealthy impacts of constantly trying to be a perfect parent doesn’t just exhaust parents, but it also significantly harms children.

The Report

The Ohio State University study, which was the second survey on parental burnout in two years, was published in a May 2024 report entitled, “The Power of Positive Parenting: Evidence to Help Parents and Their Children Thrive.” The researchers looked at data from more than 700 parents nationwide, gathered between June 15 and July 28, 2023, and found that:

• 57% of parents self-reported burnout

• Parental burnout is strongly associated with internal and external expectations (e.g., perceived judgment from others, play time with their kids, spousal relationship, keeping the house clean, whether one feels like a good parent)

• Children experienced fewer mental health issues (i.e., anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD) with a lighter load of structured extracurricular activities and more free play time between parent and child.

• The mental health and behavior strongly impact the mental health of the child. The greater the parental burnout and harsh parenting practices, the more mental health problems the child appeared to have. Completing the circle, if children have a mental health disorder, the greater the chances the parents would self-report a higher level of burnout and a greater likelihood for insulting, criticizing, yelling at, cursing at, or physically harming their child (e.g., repeated spanking).

What’s causing the pressure to be a perfect parent?

According to one of the lead researchers, Kate Galik, DNP, who herself if a working mother of four, believes the overarching root cause of parental burnout seems to be a “cultural of achievement.”

“I think social media has just really tipped the scales,” says the Ohio State College of Nursing associate clinical professor. “You can look at people on Instagram or you can even just see people walking around, and I always think, ‘How do they do that?’ How do they seem to always have it all together when I don’t?’ We have high expectations for ourselves as parents; we have high expectations for what our kids should be doing. The on the flipside, you’re comparing yourself to other people, other families, and there’s a lot of judgment that goes on. And whether it’s intended or not, it’s still there.”

As Ohio State Vice President for Health Promotion and Chief Wellness Officer Dr. Bernadette Melnyk points out, “When parents are burned out, they have more depression, anxiety and stress, but their children also do behaviorally and emotionally worse. So it’s super important to face your true story if you’re burning out as a parent and do something about it for better self-care.”

Breaking the cycle

Galik and Melnyk created a 10-point survey called the Working Parent Burnout Scale to allow parents to measure their physical and emotional exhaustion and use evidence-based solutions to create change.

The report focuses on “positive parenting,” an approach that works to build nurturing, trusting parent-child relationships through listening and communication, mutual respect, consistent boundaries, empathy, positive reinforcement and unconditional love and support. The eight tips include:

  1. Tell and show your children you love them.
  2. Catch your children being good.
  3. Provide structure, including daily routines (e.g., eat meals together, have a bedtime routine).
  4. Disciple your child gently when needed.
  5. Set limits and boundaries.
  6. Teach your children that decisions and behaviors have consequences.
  7. Set realistic expectations.
  8. Role model healthy behaviors.

“Parents do a great job caring for their children and everybody else, but they often don’t prioritize their own self-care,” says Melnyk, who considers parental burnout a “public health epidemic.” “As parents, we can’t keep pouring from an empty cup. If children see their parents taking good self-care, the chances are they’re going to grow up with that value as well. It has a ripple effect to the children and to the entire family.”

Rather than aiming for perfection, aim for happiness—for yourself as a parent and for your child.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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