Many children — and their parents — struggle with perfectionism. It is difficult for parents because it is difficult for their children. Here we provide some background and guidance to help children who tend toward perfectionism.
Understanding perfectionism: Perfectionist children judge their feeling about an activity’s success on whether or not the product meets a particular standard. For example, grades below an “A” might not be sufficient. Perfectionist children also have an all-or-nothing perspective about their achievements; partial successes feel like full failures. They are not able to feel reasonably good about what they achieve if it isn’t the ideal. Other children can base their feelings on whether they have done their reasonable best. For children who are not perfectionists, the process — or their effort — is what matters.
Perfectionism is sometimes described as a “trait,” which can be misleading. Traits are often considered genetically based qualities. Examples are being more or less reactive or adventuresome. Some traits seem to affect the likelihood that a child will eventually develop perfectionist tendencies, but children are not predestined to become perfectionist.
Perfectionism is individualistic: Perfectionism is part of the complex way a particular child thinks about her relationships, desires, imaginings, moral qualities and experiences. Perfectionist tendencies for an older preschooler or school-age child will be intertwined with different aspects of that child.
This understanding of perfectionism helps explain one of its perplexing aspects: A child is usually a perfectionist only in some areas. This would be unexplainable if perfectionism were a trait. But since each one of a child’s qualities has a different purpose and function within his or her own complex psychology, perfectionist qualities appear in some areas and not others.
Reasons for perfectionism: Perfectionism, like any important quality, comes about for different reasons in each and every individual situation. The following are some of the common reasons that children are perfectionistic:
- Attempts to over-compensate with perfection for excessive failures (in reality or in their own mind). This is common, for example, with children who have learning challenges.
- Compensating for feelings of guilt.
- Beliefs that achievement will win a parent’s love (whether or not this is true).
- Feelings of competition with a sibling or parent.
- Identifying with a parent who is a perfectionist, although perhaps in different ways than the child.
- All-or-nothing orientation to the world.
- Limited ability to tolerate the inevitable disappointment of not making the “A” grade or hitting the home run.
How you can help: The above list is not exhaustive, but to the extent any of the scenarios pertain to a particular child, they are undoubtedly beyond her own awareness. This, combined with a child’s unconscious belief that her perfectionism will solve some inner challenges, makes a parent’s task daunting.
Parents often tell their perfectionistic child that they are proud of her for trying, that they hope that she can be proud of just doing their best and that everyone has areas of greater and lesser talent and natural ability. These are important things to say occasionally, but they are unlikely to make a big difference. We advise parents to not beat this drum excessively, because emphasis upon these points can backfire, leading a child to feel that their perfectionism is one more indication of not meeting the standard of not being perfectionistic!
Parents have a limited ability to change their child, especially as time goes on. A parent’s best bet may be to reframe how their child thinks about their task. Instead of trying to change a child, it may be best just to be there to help her. Parents can tell their perfectionistic child that they see that she expects a great deal from herself, which is a good thing (highlighting the value of perfectionism), but they also see that she has difficulty feeling good about herself when she does her best but doesn’t reach her personal standard. This conveys a parent’s empathy and concern and defines the perfectionism as the child’s problem. Parents can follow this comment by telling their child that her perfectionism is her good attempt to help herself feel better about something; it just doesn’t always work out.
It is unlikely that a perfectionistic child will ever completely stop being perfectionist. That’s OK. She will have a valuable quality if she can tone it down. Reaching for the stars and expecting a great deal of herself can be a valuable characteristic — if she does not carry it to an extreme, can be flexible, and can take pleasure when she achieves only part of a full goal.
While it is difficult to take a long view, we recommend that parents see their child’s perfectionism as something that he or she will gradually shape and mold with your help. And in the long run, tiny step by tiny step, a child can transform their perfectionism into a healthy drive for accomplishment.
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