by Hannah Page, MEd, NCC, LAPC
Perfectionism is a term we are hearing more often in today’s world, and it is also a trait we are seeing more commonly in children and adolescents. Perfectionism is not entirely a negative trait; in fact, there are many positives of perfectionism. Perfectionism may help individuals set personal standards and pursue significant goals, which is important to be successful in life. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, healthy perfectionism includes:
- Doing the best you can with the time and tools you have, and then moving on
- Setting high personal standards with a gentle acceptance of self
- Managing behaviors to not interfere with daily life
Perfectionism can become unhealthy when it starts to interfere with one’s lifestyle and causes pain, stress, procrastination, and underachievement. Perfectionism is a form of anxiety and appears to stem from a combination of environmental influences and inherent tendencies. These may include extreme praise from parental figures; excessive demands from parents, teachers, and coaches; observations of adults modeling perfectionism behaviors; and parental affection being reliant on the child’s outstanding accomplishments. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, unhealthy perfectionism includes:
- Experiencing extreme persistent anxiety about making mistakes
- Perceiving that one’s work is never good enough
- Feeling guilty if not engaged in meaningful work at all times
- Having a compulsive drive to achieve, where personal value is based on what is accomplished
- Feeling continually dissatisfied about one’s work, leading to anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness
How you can help your child overcome perfectionism:
- Educate your Child on Perfectionism:
Talk to your child and be open. Often, kids become so upset with themselves because they don’t understand why they are feeling so frustrated, anxious, and dissatisfied with their work. By helping your child understand what perfectionism is, you are also able to normalize the perfectionism so your child does not feel so alone. Help your child understand that perfectionism may make individuals be overly critical of themselves, and it might make individuals feel scared or anxious to try new things, which might lead to avoidance or procrastination. Help your child gain perspective by letting them know one bad grade doesn’t mean they are worthless, and one bad performance doesn’t mean they will never be able to have a good performance.
- Teach Positive Self-Talk:
Children who struggle with perfectionism tend to be very rigid thinkers as well, seeing things only in black and white, or good and bad. They tend to have a difficult time seeing in-between and the grey areas. For example, an individual who has perfectionism may believe that they are only good if they get an A+, and if they get anything below an A+ they view themselves as a failure. Help your child see the grey areas, and help them understand that even if they get a B, that is still a fantastic achievement! Many children who struggle with perfectionism have intrusive self-critical thoughts. Help your child to learn positive self-talk to replace those self-critical thoughts. Here are some examples of positive self-talk:
- “I tried my best, and I am happy about that”
- “No one is perfect; it is okay to make mistakes”
- “I don’t have to be perfect, my best is good enough”
Together, you and your child can come up with some positive self-talk statements. Make it a fun activity, and make artistic positive self-talk cards! Have your child practice positive self-talk statements daily, especially when he/she is feeling self-critical. As a parent, it is also helpful for you to model positive self-talk by saying positive self-talk statements out loud when you make a mistake! Kids learn so much from observation.
- Use Praise and Encouragement:
It is extremely important to praise and encourage efforts instead of accomplishments and outcomes. Praising efforts encourages children to continuously challenge themselves and teaches children that reward comes through effort, not only from achievement. By encouraging your child’s efforts, we send the message that accomplishments are rooted in hard work and practice, and teach children that when they challenge themselves with difficult tasks, their hard efforts help them to succeed. When parent’s focus only on rewarding achievement’s such as straight A’s or being the “fastest” runner on the track team, children avoid trying new behaviors that may be more challenging to them due to fear of failure, or not meeting parent’s expectations.
Instead of praising success (ex: “Your artwork looks perfect!” or “I am so proud you got first place!”, say things such as “Wow! I can tell you worked so hard on this art project” or “Wow! You had so much confidence out there today, you really were trying your best!”
Perfectionism in children is common, especially in today’s world. As parent’s and caregivers, we can help kids of all ages to overcome their perfectionism and become more flexible, and kind to themselves. If you are concerned your child or loved one is struggling with unhealthy perfectionisms, follow the above tips to best help them overcome their struggles. It may be beneficial to also seek consultation from a Mental Health Professional.