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7 Effective Ways to Help Your Child Overcome Perfectionism

19 Apr 2023
7 Effective Ways to Help Your Child Overcome Perfectionism

At some point or another, you may have heard another parent proudly boasting, “My child is a perfectionist.” It’s not uncommon within American culture to equate perfectionism with striving for excellence. However, the two are far from being the same thing.

If you’re dealing with a child who is a perfectionist, you’ve probably seen up close how challenging it can be. Anxiety, depression, burnout, overthinking, self-criticism, and social stress are just a few of the symptoms that often accompany perfectionism. From complete meltdowns over a mistake they made to spending hours on a seemingly small project in order to get it “just right,” perfectionism can be draining. Let’s examine this condition more closely and take a look at what to do if your child is a perfectionist.

What Is Perfectionism?

It’s generally a positive thing for children and teens to hold themselves to high standards. However, if perfection is the goal, they’ll always end up disappointed. Perfectionists set unrealistic goals and put tremendous pressure on themselves to achieve them. They tend to think in very all-or-nothing terms (for example, believing scoring 99 points out of 100 is a “failure”). Perfectionist children tend to evaluate themselves not only through the achievement of a goal but also, notably, through others’ acceptance and approval

Success feels complicated for a perfectionist. They frequently attribute their accomplishments to luck and feel pressure to repeat or maintain that level of success. Because of this, perfectionism eventually wears children down, often leaving them “cognitively exhausted.”

Signs of Perfectionism

The symptoms of perfectionism may differ for children based on age, but there are a few common red flags:  

  • Trouble finishing homework because the assignment is never “good enough”
  • Tendency to demean or belittle others
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks or “decision paralysis”
  • Extreme dread or worry about defeat or failure
  • Very little patience with mistakes
  • Tendency to procrastinate when it comes to challenging assignments
  • Highly self-critical and self-conscious
  • Easily embarrassed

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Why Is My Child a Perfectionist?

Researchers believe there are multiple factors that may play a part in a child’s tendency toward perfectionism.

  • Biological characteristics: Studies reveal that perfectionism correlates with certain mental illnesses, like obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders. Researchers have concluded, therefore, that there may be a biological component to perfectionism.
  • Academic motivations: Some kids stress about their test scores or GPA because they worry it will affect their ability to attend college or earn scholarships. This type of academic pressure can cause them to feel like they must achieve perfection in order to succeed in life.
  • Parental expectations: Parental encouragement is a great thing. For some kids, though, frequent praise for being the most talented on the team or for receiving perfect test scores can lead them to believe mistakes are inherently bad. They may develop a “win-at-all-costs” mindset.
  • Traumatic experiences: Children who’ve experienced trauma may believe they’re unlovable unless they’re perfect.
  • Perfectionistic parents: Parents who are perfectionists are more likely to raise perfectionistic children. This may be either a genetic predisposition or learned behavior.
  • People-pleasing: This may stem from a need for attention in some children, a longing to minimize parental worry, or an effort to earn esteem and affection.
  • Low self-worth: Children who don’t feel good about themselves may equate their self-worth with their accomplishments. Perfectionistic children tend to hyperfocus on their mistakes, however, which keeps them from ever truly feeling worthy.

The Possible Risks of Perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t necessarily a sign your child will excel and rise to the top of their game. In fact, it can actually cause the opposite to happen.

  • Fear of failure can be paralyzing for a perfectionist, causing them to avoid new experiences or attempt new skills or projects.
  • Many perfectionistic children hide their inner pain and stress because of the desire to appear perfect.
  • Perfectionistic children tend to experience higher levels of stress. The constant internal pressure to avoid mistakes leads to increased anxiety which can impact their physical and emotional health.
  • Perfectionism may also put children at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Helping a Child Who Is a Perfectionist

If you believe your child may be developing perfectionistic tendencies, there are several steps you can take to help them.

  1. Create awareness around circumstances they are able to control vs. those they can’t. Help your child understand that there are lots of factors that may affect their success. Some are within their control (like their own effort), while others are not (like how difficult the instructor makes the exams).
  2. Try to build your child’s self-esteem. Encourage them to participate in new activities, participate in artistic projects, and volunteer around the community. These activities can help them feel better about who they are as a person, not simply what they’re able to accomplish.
  3. Show your child how to exercise self-compassion. Instead of criticizing yourself when you make a mistake, use language that shows you treat yourself with kindness. For example, “I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning today, but that’s okay. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
  4. Avoid adding extra pressure. Having high expectations is good, but make sure they’re reasonable. If your child fails to meet your goals or wants to quit trying to achieve them, you may be expecting too much. Discuss the dreams your child has for themselves. Help them establish goals that are realistic.
  5. Compliment their effort instead of their results. For example, praise their hard work and time spent studying, not the grade they got on the test. Be sure to also praise them for positive character traits, like being a compassionate friend or treating others with kindness. Accomplishing one’s goals isn’t the only thing that matters in life.
  6. Talk about challenges you’ve faced in your own life. Share a story about a time you failed a test, missed scoring the winning goal or didn’t get a job you wanted. Talk about how you dealt with the setback.
  7. Teach them how to manage negative feelings. Failure is inevitable at some point for each of us, and though it’s painful, it’s not unbearable. Journaling, painting, spending time with a friend, or playing music are all coping mechanisms that may help them manage their emotions.

When to Talk to a Doctor

If you suspect your child’s perfectionism is impacting their daily life in a negative way, you may want to consult with a healthcare professional. For instance, if they rip up papers in frustration, can’t start or complete a project because they fear their work isn’t good enough or burst into tears over anything less than an A, it may be time to talk to their pediatrician. Discuss the red flags you’ve observed and mention how those issues are affecting your child’s life. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a mental health professional for an evaluation. If treatment is necessary, therapy may help your child modulate the perfectionism and reduce anxiety.

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