The Problem With Perfection
Parents want their children to excel. Parents want them to strive for excellence, and to feel accomplished with a job well-done. Whether it’s their education, music lessons, dance, performance, or any other skill they’re pursuing, kids are taught to aim high and master new things from an early age. Striving for perfection in the sense of learning to excel can be healthy and admirable.
But, when reaching for perfection turns compulsive, it becomes an unhealthy struggle.
And this type of pervasive perfectionism can become debilitating to some children. Perfectionists can be unsatisfied with their performance on anything – even when they’ve done beautifully.
Characteristics of Perfectionism to look for in your child.
- 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. These children also struggle with change and flexibility in their thinking.
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 the 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.
What To Do When Your Child Is A Perfectionist
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 their spelling test. Instead, praise them for studying hard. Also, praise them for treating others with kindness or for being a good friend. Make it clear that achievement isn’t the only important thing in life.
- Be a role model. Share stories of your own failures. Make it clear to your child that you aren’t perfect. Talk about the time you didn’t get a job or a time when you failed a test. Explain how you coped with your failure. 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.”
- 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 can help children deal with their feelings.
- 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.
- Help your child identify what they can control and what they can’t. Whether your child wants to be the best basketball player in the whole school or they want to ace every biology exam, make it clear that they can’t control many of the circumstances that influence their success. They can’t control how hard the teacher makes her tests or control how well their peers perform, but they can control their own effort.
- Set realistic goals with your child. Talk to your child about goals they want to reach. If their goals require perfection, talk to them about the dangers of setting unrealistically high goals for themselves and help them to establish more realistic goals.
- Help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Engage in activities that help your child feel good about who they are, not just what they accomplish. Volunteering, learning new things, and engaging in artistic endeavors are just a few ways to help your child develop a healthier view of himself.