Perfectionism in children

In today’s culture of high stakes testing and tough competition for college admissions, perfectionism in children can be viewed as a desirable trait. But recent research shows that perfectionism can interfere with a child’s ability to achieve goals and shape their futures–the core of what it means to be resourceful. In fact, perfectionistic children often struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

I know firsthand about being a perfectionist. I grew up in a household where no matter what I achieved, it was never enough. Believing my parents would love me more if I achieved more, I set my goals higher and higher. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I realized my perfectionism wasn’t healthy. As much as I understand how I ended up a perfectionist, I still struggle with balancing my need to be perfect with more effective strategies for getting things done.

Are We Hard-Wired for Perfectionism?

There is growing evidence that some of us are more hard-wired for perfectionism than others and that this becomes a life-long personality trait. But research also shows that perfectionism is nurtured by life experiences and culture. With the right support by parents, tendencies toward perfectionism in children can be moderated and reduced.

Consider our daily lives and the culture that surrounds our children. Magazines depict the perfect body. Universities seek applicants with perfect grades. Sports teams want winners, not losers.  Reality TV promises instant celebrity. The media portrays success as having material wealth, not internal wealth.

So while we can’t change a child’s neurobiology or single-handedly change the culture, we CAN alter a child’s life experiences by the way we parent, teach, and mentor them.

Signs that a Child May Be a Perfectionist

Ask yourself a few questions. If you recognize these traits in your son or daughter, you may be raising a perfectionist child!

Does your child…

  • Fear failure?
  • Believe that making mistakes is a sign of weakness?
  • Seek approval for the way he or she looks?
  • Feel uncomfortable with criticism or disapproval?
  • Believe that a C grade means total failure?
  • Live with a lot of rigid rules or shoulds?
  • Perceive that others achieve success with more minimal effort?

When children aim for precision in everything they do, perfectionism becomes their primary strategy for making decisions and solving problems. It is hard, unending work, often leading to indecisiveness and unreachable goals.

Perfectionism in children produces a vicious cycle of trying harder and harder to achieve and never feeling good about the results. Yet, being a perfectionist also has value is many life endeavors. It is a strategy that can develop perseverance and innovation, leading to the creation of great new companies and products.

I’ve tried to embrace my perfectionist strengths but not let them control me. But it was a long, hard road and one that would have been made easier if my parents had been aware of how to help reframe my notions of success.

Six Ways Moderate Perfectionism in Children

We can still set high standards for children and teens while helping them avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism. At any age, these six guidelines can help moderate and balance perfectionism in children and provide healthier strategies for goal accomplishment.

  1. Help children focus on the process rather than the end result. The process should be as fun and rewarding as achieving the final goal.
  2. Help your kids learn from mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities, not failures.
  3. Challenge children’s standards for success. For example, in a class project or summer activity, ask them to shoot for 80 or 90 percent success instead of 100 percent. Discuss the outcome. Did their world come to an end because the effort wasn’t perfect? Likely not.
  4. When you notice anxiety in children, talk with them about their expectations. Have they set up unrealistic goals? Help them reassess goals and achieve feel-good outcomes.
  5. When children hesitate to take risks and push themselves out of their comfort zones — attitudes necessary to develop initiative — help them confront their fears. Helpful questions might include, “What are you most afraid of?” or “What is the worst thing that could happen?”
  6. Teach children to prioritize tasks. Not all tasks are worth a perfectionist approach. When kids learn to distinguish important tasks from unimportant ones, they will be far more successful.

Double the Challenge: Perfectionism in Children and Parents

If you happen to be a perfectionist like me, the task of raising your perfectionist child is extra challenging.

For example, let’s imagine your daughter is working on a science project. She gets distracted from the project because studying for an exam in another class takes priority. As the date for the science project draws near, she gets more and more anxious. Fearing the project won’t get done on time, her anxiety affects the quality of her work. She has an emotional melt-down.

How will you react? Like me, you might jump right in to help her with the project. Why? Because you are a perfectionist and you don’t relish failure in yourself or your kids!

Ah… if I could only go back a few years and rethink how my own perfectionism influenced my parenting style, I’d most likely have a daughter who felt better about herself and her many accomplishments.

An alternative approach?

I wish I had helped my daughter through the emotional process of learning how to fail rather than rescuing her. I would have embraced the six guidelines outlined above and acknowledged to her that we can’t accomplish everything. I would have accepted her frustration and taught her about self-compassion.

If her science project wasn’t stellar, I would have praised my daughter for her inner strengths, like her creativity and resilience. I would have helped her learn to better prioritize her work.

Hindsight is always a great teacher! Yes, perfectionism in children can be moderated and decreased so they achieve greater balance and well-being.

How have you helped reduce perfectionism in your child? How have you helped yourself balance your perfectionist tendencies?

Additional References for Parents

Visit the Center for Parenting Education to learn more about the characteristics of perfectionism in children and thirty ways parents can help.

Visit FirstFiveYears for information on perfectionism in very young children and when to seek professional help.

Visit PsychCentral to learn about four parenting styles that contribute to perfectionism in children.

Published: February 24, 2021

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