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How to Tell If Your Self-Sufficient Daughter Is Actually Struggling

Why You Should Be Concerned About the Child You Never Worry About

By Caralena Peterson

Everyone loves the self-sufficient, people-pleasing daughter who makes her parents proud as she earns good grades and receives countless awards. But most don’t recognize the harmful mindsets she might take in order to deliver this persona. 

Oftentimes, the self-motivated “good girl” who has become quite skilled at meeting and surpassing expectations does so because she has internalized that she is most valuable, most lovable, when living up to the impossible standard of effortless perfection. Perfect grades, perfect body, perfect social life — she feels such things are expected to simply flow out of her as a natural expression of who she is, and it’s weighing on her. Behind the gilded front of effortless perfection may be a child who is actually putting in a great deal of effort, and could probably use some support. 

Parents should be on the lookout for three signs that their daughter might actually be struggling: 

1.) She exhibits inflexible thinking.
Does your daughter have one vision of what success looks like? Does she have a hard time accepting alternative approaches to situations and achieving goals? Inflexible thinking and anxiety are closely linked, negatively impacting mental health. Situations involving uncertainty can quickly become overwhelming and possibly destabilizing when operating from this mindset. 

Perfectionist Daughters are notoriously inflexible in their thinking. Instead of facing our fears, we compartmentalize them within walls made of compliments and awards and leadership titles. But this only makes us more fearful of failure because we are fully aware of what awaits us if we take a misstep. 

I recommend sharing with your daughter an eye-opening metaphor from a sermon by acclaimed spiritual leader, Maurice Boyd: “At [the world-renown] Waterfords [sic] Crystal, each piece of crystal is meticulously inspected, held up to the light, each surface appraised for the slightest crack or deformity. If any is spotted, the piece is immediately shattered … for a defect nearly invisible to the human eye. Notice how close perfection is to despair.” It might be a helpful parallel for your daughter to understand that, when the flip side of perfection is obliteration, it makes sense to feel like everything is constantly at stake. Once you’ve affirmed her feelings, you can then convey to her that expecting oneself to be effortlessly perfect is too much pressure for one person to bear. 

Though perfectionism is often dismissed as a superficial cliche all about upholding flawless appearances, it’s truly a dangerous, maladaptive coping mechanism. It’s how those of us with anxiety, people-pleasing tendencies, and intense fear of failure cope with our need for control and certainty. We like to believe that if we can make our lives look perfect, then they will start to feel perfect, too. Unfortunately, this mindset often just leads us straight into breakdowns. It’s important to help your daughter develop a healthier standard of success, or she will continue to feel like she’s constantly one step away from disaster.

2.) She shows signs of a reassurance addiction.
Does your daughter crave external validation to an unhealthy extent? Reassurance addictions function by causing individuals to stop trusting their own judgment when it comes to personal worth, which is why one’s grades, weight on the scale, and other quantitative forms of measurement become such a fixation. Only appraisals with accompanying proof seem to matter, as a gnawing suspicion that nothing else is to be trusted grows. 

Reassurance addictions encourage us to go after more, more, more as a way of ensuring we are doing everything possible to achieve the best, most flawlessly beautiful trajectory for our lives. We are pushed by the fear that if we don’t take advantage of every last opportunity, we will find ourselves on a path that is “lesser.” We must “do it all” so that we are never cut off from possibilities that may ensure us a happier, more recognizably successful life in the future. We reason that the ability to make any choice means we should eventually be able to make the best choice when the time comes. But nobody knows when that moment will actually arrive and what it will look like.

We aren’t thinking about contentment as something created in the moment. We are guided by the idea that by compiling “more” — more wins, more awards, more followers on TikTok — we will have eventually compiled enough social and academic capital that we can exchange it all for joy and purpose. But that’s just not how it works. After all, confidence that comes from the rank our achievements afford us and other external forms of recognition is almost always precarious. It remains based on conformity to someone else’s standards.

I recommend helping your daughter think through where her motivation to achieve and succeed comes from; is she pushing herself so hard because of her own personal goals and desires, or because she is trying to impress others and convince them of her worth?

3.) She exhibits people-pleasing tendencies.
Does your daughter constantly put others’ needs before her own? Does she have a hard time setting boundaries and saying no? She might have yet to learn the lesson that she can’t burn herself to keep others warm. Being selfless has its downfalls — it’s important to know how to hold people accountable when they are asking for too much or causing discomfort. 

At their cores, people-pleasers act as they do because they believe love is something to be earned by being pretty enough, smart enough, popular enough, agreeable enough. That is really a lie. Love and affection cannot be fully felt by the receiver when the receiver believes such things only come as the result of measuring up to an ideal or through the vigilant micromanagement of their own nature. 

People-pleasing is also a harmful tendency because instead of focusing on developing a strong sense of identity, the individual is trying to be the best version of whatever the person they are with in the moment wants. I recommend helping your daughter to understand she is allowed to be selfish when building her own identity, and giving her permission to explore identities that are not just about earning brownie points. She needs to recognize that her relationship with herself is the core that will sustain her through life’s ups and downs. In the words of Pulitzer prize–winning author and columnist Anna Quindlen, “[I]f you have been perfect all your life and have managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be.” Make sure your daughter knows that it is okay to be contrarian, to take risks, and to experiment with her identity.

Overall, my biggest piece of parenting advice when it comes to all three of these points is seeking to open lines of communication instead of forcing a grand, overwhelming intervention. Plant the seeds showing you are a safe space to share and unload. If you are looking for more pointers on how to talk to your daughter about these issues, check out the full discussion guide on my website.

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