Parent Guide to Perfectionism in Children

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Children who have perfectionist tendencies exhibit a continuum of behaviors. On one end of the spectrum are children who take pleasure from doing difficult tasks, setting high standards for themselves, and putting forth the necessary energy for high achievement. On the other end of the continuum are those children who are unable to glean satisfaction from their efforts due to their preset, unrealistic goals. Since mistakes are unacceptable to them, perfectionism provides these students with little pleasure and much self-reproach.

Perfectionism appears to result from a combination of inborn tendencies and environmental factors. These can include excessive praise or demands from parents, teachers or trainers, observation of adults modeling perfectionist tendencies, and from parental love being conditional upon the child`s exemplary achievement. Extreme perfectionism has been linked to performance and social anxiety, eating disorders, migraine headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and suicide.

Some characteristics of children who are extreme perfectionists:

  • having exceptionally high expectations for themselves;
  • being self-critical, self-conscious and easily embarrassed;
  • having strong feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence;
  • exhibiting persistent anxiety about making mistakes;
  • being highly sensitive to criticism;
  • procrastinating and avoiding stressful situations or difficult tasks;
  • being emotionally guarded and socially inhibited;
  • having a tendency to be critical of others;
  • exhibiting difficulty making decisions and prioritizing tasks;
  • experiencing headaches or other physical ailments when they perform below the expectations of themselves or others.

Gifted children, who are accustomed to excelling, are often perfectionists. Problems occur if they refuse to attempt a new assignment or do not complete their work because it may not be done flawlessly. The result is gifted children who are underachievers. These students are also susceptible to burn-out if they attempt to display exemplary performance in every academic discipline. See: Gifted Children

Parents may help children who exhibit extreme perfectionism in the following ways:

  1. Provide unconditional caring and support.
  2. Provide a calm, uncluttered, and structured environment.
  3. Avoid comparing children.
  4. Give specific praise. See: Effective Praise.
  5. Avoid using words such as brilliant, genius, and perfect.
  6. Use listening and other communication skills.
  7. Acknowledge without judgment children’s negative emotions such as frustration, anxiety, sadness and fear.
  8. Ask children to keep a journal expressing their thoughts and feelings.
  9. Help them understand that it is impossible to complete every task without making mistakes.
  10. Encourage high standards, but explain that there is a difference between perfectionism and quality work.
  11. Involve them in setting realistic standards for themselves.
  12. Let them know that even if they fail at something, they are loved.
  13. Challenge their belief if they call themselves a failure, and provide a more rational evaluation.
  14. Help them prioritize tasks and break down assignments or projects into manageable parts.
  15. Teach them to revise, start again, and learn from their errors.
  16. For those who procrastinate, change the goal from perfection to completion.
  17. Provide support if they perform at a lower level than expected.
  18. Help them learn coping skills such as positive “self-talk.” See: Encouraging Thoughts
  19. Encourage the use of self-control skills. See: The Essential Skill of Self-Control
  20. Promote relaxation techniques such as listening to soothing music, counting slowly, taking deep breaths, participating in a hobby, walking, reading or something else that helps calm them.
  21. Read biographies together of successful people who overcame failure, persevered and achieved greatness; for example, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller.
  22. Help them understand that saying disparaging things about themselves is detrimental to their well-being.
  23. Create opportunities for success that will enhance their self-confidence.
  24. Encourage constructive peer interaction through various activities.
  25. Have them practice saying kind comments to others.
  26. Meet with their teachers to promote a cooperative relationship.
  27. Admit to making your own mistakes.
  28. Model perseverance when faced with a difficult task.
  29. Use constructive coping skills when dealing with disappointments.
  30. Examine your competitiveness and, when necessary, decrease your emphasis on winning.

Children who suffer from extreme perfectionism need assistance from the adults in their lives. They may also need help from a professional therapist. The goal would be to reduce their perfectionists tendencies to the point of having them become an asset rather than a liability.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website []

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