What to Do When Your Child Is a Perfectionist

Being a perfectionist isn't the same as having high standards

Perfectionists struggle to get their work done.
JGI/Jamie Grill / Blend Images / Getty Images

Perhaps you’ve heard a parent proudly say something like, “My son stayed up all night getting his science fair project just right. He’s a bit of a perfectionist!” But any parent who thinks perfectionism is a status symbol likely doesn’t understand that perfectionism is a serious problem.

If you’re raising a perfectionist, you’ve likely seen firsthand how difficult it can be. Torn up papers, late nights, and crying episodes are just a few of the behaviors you might witness in a budding perfectionist.

Whether your child melts down whenever she makes a mistake on the athletic field or she spends hours every day trying to take a perfect selfie, perfectionism takes a toll on children’s lives. And when it goes unchecked, it can have lifelong consequences.

What Constitutes Perfectionism?

It’s good for kids to hold high expectations of themselves. But if they expect everything to be perfect, they’ll never be satisfied with their performance.

Perfectionists establish unrealistic goals for themselves. Then, they place enormous pressure on themselves to try and reach their goals. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Whether it’s a 99 on a math test or 9 out of 10 foul shots made, perfectionists declare their performance a dismal failure when they fall short of their goals.

When they do succeed, they struggle to enjoy their accomplishments. They often chalk up their achievements to good luck and worry they won’t be able to replicate the results or maintain their level of success.

Types of Perfectionism

Some researchers believe it’s possible to be an adaptive perfectionist, meaning that a child’s unrealistically high expectations could actually serve him well in life. But other researchers argue that true perfectionism is always harmful.

Researchers have also identified three distinct types of perfectionism:

  • Self-Oriented Perfectionists – Hold unrealistic expectations for themselves
  • Other-Oriented Perfectionists – Set unrealistic standards for other people
  • Socially Prescribed Perfectionists – Believe other people, such as parents or coaches, have unrealistic expectations of them

All three types of perfection can be harmful to a child’s well-being.

Symptoms

Warning signs of perfectionism will vary depending on your child’s age and the type of perfectionism he experiences. But, in general, symptoms of perfectionism may include:

  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • Difficulty completing assignments because the work is never ‘good enough’
  • Procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks
  • Self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed
  • Very critical of other people
  • Trouble making decisions or prioritizing tasks
  • Low frustration tolerance when a mistake is made
  • High anxiety surrounding failure

Risk Factors

Scientists think there are several factors that may contribute to perfectionism in children.

  • Biological factors – Research shows perfectionism is closely related to certain mental illnesses, like obsessive compulsive disorder and eating disorders. This leads scientists to believe there may be a biological component to perfectionism.
  • Parental influences – Praising your child for being “the smartest kid in the whole school” or for “sticking every landing in gymnastics” could cause her to believe mistakes are bad. She may think she has to succeed at all costs.
  • Parents who are perfectionists – Parents who are perfectionists are more likely to raise children who are perfectionists. This may stem from learned behavior if a child witnesses a parent’s quest for perfection or may also reflect a genetic disposition.
  • Academic pressures – Children may fear a less than perfect GPA or less than perfect test scores will sabotage their efforts to get into a good college. Others try to be perfect so they can get scholarships. Those academic pressures can cause them to feel like they need to be perfect to get anywhere in life.
  • Sensationalism of success and failure – From elite athletes to the latest pop star, the media often portrays people as perfect. At the same time, other media stories sensationalize how one mistake led someone to become a complete failure. These media stories may convince young people they need to be perfect at everything they do.
  • Desire to please – Some children want to gain admiration and affection by showing they can be perfect in every way. This may stem from a desire to reduce a parent’s stress or it may be the only way a young person knows how to get attention.
  • Low self-worth – A child who feels bad about himself may think he’s only as good as his achievements. Perfectionists tend to focus on their mistakes and minimize their accomplishments, however, which prevent them from ever feeling good enough.
  • Trauma – Traumatic experiences may cause children to feel like they are unloved or that they won’t be accepted unless they are perfect.

The Potential Dangers of Perfectionism

Being a perfectionist won’t make your child rise to the top. In fact, perfectionism may have the opposite effect. Here are some of problems perfectionists may experience.

  • Anxiety over making a mistake prevents some perfectionists from succeeding. Their fear of failure prevents them from trying new things.
  • Children who are perfectionists often mask their pain and turmoil. They feel compelled to appear perfect on the outside, and consequently, many of them suffer silently when problems arise.
  • Perfectionism may lead to mental health problems. Perfectionists may be at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
  • Higher levels of stress. Since perfectionists feel compelled to avoid mistakes, they’re under high levels of stress all the time. And too much stress can be bad for a person’s physical and emotional health.

How to Address Perfectionism

If you see warning signs that your child is a budding perfectionist, there are several things you can do to help. Here are some strategies for addressing perfectionism.

  • Praise your child’s efforts rather than the outcome. Avoid praising your child for getting a 100 on her spelling test. Instead, praise her for studying hard. Also, praise her for treating others with kindness or for being a good friend. Make it clear that achievement isn’t the only important thing in life.
  • Share stories of your own failures. Make it clear to your child that you aren’t perfect. Tell him about the time you didn’t get a job or a time when you failed a test. Explain how you coped with your failure.
  • Teach healthy coping skills. Although failure is uncomfortable, it’s not intolerable. Teach your child how to deal with disappointment, rejection, and mistakes in a healthy way. Talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or drawing a picture are just a few coping skills that could help her deal with her feelings.
  • Model healthy self-talk. Teach your child to use self-compassion as opposed to self-criticism. Have conversations with yourself out loud to show your child that you treat yourself with kindness even when you make a mistake. Say things like, “I forgot to go to the bank today before they closed. I’ll try to do better tomorrow,” or “I wasn’t paying attention to the stove and I burned dinner. I’ll find something else for us to eat and I’ll pay attention when I’m cooking it.”
  • Monitor your expectations. Make sure you aren’t putting pressure on your child to be perfect. Create high but reasonable expectations. And monitor your expectations over time to make sure you aren’t expecting too much from your child. If he fails to meet your goals or your child wants to quit trying to reach your goals, you may expect too much from him.
  • Help your child identify what she can control and what she can’t. Whether your child wants to be the best basketball player in the whole school or she wants to ace every biology exam, make it clear that she can’t control many of the circumstances that influence her success. She can’t control how hard the teacher makes her tests and she can’t control how well her peers perform, but she can control her effort.
  • Set realistic goals with your child. Talk to your child about goals she wants to reach. If her goals require perfection, talk to her about the dangers of setting unrealistically high goals for herself and help her establish more realistic goals.
  • Help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Engage in activities that help your child feel good about who he is, not just what he accomplishes. Volunteering, learning new things, and engaging in artistic endeavors are just a few ways to help your child develop a healthier view of himself.  

When to Seek Professional Help

Be on the lookout for signs that your child’s perfectionism is causing social problems. For example, if your child refuses to socialize because he’s on a quest to get a perfect grade or he cries whenever he doesn’t get an A in class, his social life will likely suffer and he may need professional help.

Educational difficulties are another warning sign that your child may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. For example, if your child can’t finish projects because she thinks her work isn’t good enough or she rips up her papers whenever she makes a mistake, professional help may be necessary.

If you are concerned that your child is a perfectionist, talk to your child’s primary care physician. Discuss the signs that you are seeing and share how those issues impact your child’s life.

A physician may refer your child to a mental health professional for an assessment. If treatment is warranted, your child may benefit from therapy to reduce her perfectionism.

Sources:

Closson LM, Boutilier RR. Perfectionism, academic engagement, and procrastination among undergraduates: The moderating role of honors student status. Learning and Individual Differences. April 2017.

Cook LC, Kearney CA. Parent perfectionism and psychopathology symptoms and child perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences. 2014;70:1-6.

Damian LE, Stoeber J, Negru O, Băban A. On the development of perfectionism in adolescence: Perceived parental expectations predict longitudinal increases in socially prescribed perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences. 2013;55(6):688-693.

Hill AP, Curran T. Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2015;20(3):269-288.

Vicent MCAD, Inglés CJ, Sanmartín R, Gonzálvez C, García-Fernández JM. Perfectionism and aggression: Identifying risk profiles in children. Personality and Individual Differences. 2017;112:106-112.

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