I find many sources saying that parents with perfectionist ideals can ultimately push a child to shed his or her attitude of wanting to please their parents and become rebellious. What I cannot find is an explanation of the mechanism behind this change. Are there any theories or studies that attempt to explain this reversal of character?


Rimm (essay)

Parents.com (article - anecdotal)


3 Answers 3


Childhood/adolescent rebelliousness could be explained by psychological reactance theory (Brehm, 1966) and self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Psychological reactance theory, Brehm states:

The idea fundamental to reactance theory, namely, that people become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom. This motivational state is what is called psychological reactance. It impels the individual to restore the particular freedom that was threatened or taken away. It does not impel the individual to acquire just any freedom--only the one threatened or taken away will do.

Psychological reactance would be elicited when freedom is taken away, thereby motivating individuals to engage in oppositional behavior. It follows that it parents are perfectionist they would be more likely to take away freedom from their child.

Self-determination theory:

Central to SDT are the basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. When satisfied, these needs foster growth and psychosocial adjustment. When frustrated, people would display maladjustment and psychopathology (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013).

Essentially "Don't tell me what to do"

Another idea is that parental pressure can create a lot of stress, and that rebelling or dropping out is simply a reaction to this stress. Stoeber & Rambow (2007) found that:

Parental pressure to be perfect and negative reactions to imperfection, are associated with the motivation to avoid failure and low well-being and thus may undermine healthy adolescent development.

However they do also go on to say:

Not all aspects of perfectionism are neurotic, unhealthy, or maladaptive. On the contrary, strivingfor perfection can form part of a healthy pursuit of excellence (Shafran, Cooper, & Fairburn, 2002) and may be adaptive in achievement situations where perfectionistic strivings could provide students with additional motivation to do their best and thus achieve better grades.

It appears to me that children/ adolescents reaction to perfectionist parenting is not a change in character, but just a reaction to the environment that has been created for them.


Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The" what" and" why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Stoeber, J., & Rambow, A. (2007). Perfectionism in adolescent school students: Relations with motivation, achievement, and well-being. Personality and individual differences, 42(7), 1379-1389.

Vansteenkiste, M., & Ryan, R. M. (2013). On psychological growth and vulnerability: Basic psychological need satisfaction and need frustration as a unifying principle. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(3), 263.


Balswick & Macrides (1975) found adolescent rebellion to be the product of the specific home environment. Among other factors, they found that a patriarchal and restrictive home often led to rebellious adolescents. A very restrictive home leads to frustration and then to aggression. The authors explain their findings with the frustration-aggression theory (Berkowitz, 1989). This theory suggests that

...frustration, or failure to reach a certain desired goal due to circumstance, often leads to aggression or behavior that intends harm.

Although the authors did not look specifically at parental expectations, I think the theory can be applied to your question nonetheless. High expectations of a child may not necessarily lead to frustration and reactive aggression. What may well trigger frustration and aggression is when the parental expectations are too high such that they cannot be possibly met by the child. Frustration and aggression of the child may then be fueled by the incapability to meet those expectations.

- Balswick & Macrides, Adolescence (1975); X(38): 253-66
- Berkowitz, Psychol Bull (1989); 106(1): 59-73


well,Freud explains in Sigmund Freud – Psychological Projection as “Projecting our problems onto other people”

According to the theories of Sigmund Freud, psychological projection is a psychological defense mechanism whereby one “projects” one’s own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings, and so on onto someone else (usually another person, but psychological projection onto animals and inanimate objects also occurs). The principle of projection is well-established in psychology.

As an example,

If a parent has repressed feelings that they have a lazy nature, they will see a hint of laziness in their child and begin to rage against this. A child will do anything it is told not to do, because it is a way of getting the parents attention, even though it may be negative behavior. Over time this negative attention feels like love to the child. They get reversed wired and begin to do passive aggressive behavior to get the attention of the parent, even though it is painful for both. To the child this negative behavior begins to feel like love.

That scales up and hence the rebelliousness.

Also, have a look at this Research which has shown that parental expectations for children’s academic achievement predict educational outcomes more than do other measures of parental involvement, such as attending school events.

Hope this helps.


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