Ask Anything! with Dr. Tina Lepage
Helping Your Perfectionistic Child
Q: My daughter is in elementary school and is a real perfectionist. She melts down when she colors outside the lines, doesn’t form a letter perfectly, etc. She calls herself “stupid” and gives up when she makes a minor mistake. I remember being very “particular” myself as a child but not to the point of having a tantrum when things weren’t perfect. Life will be full of things going wrong – how can I help my daughter accept imperfection?
A: It’s heartbreaking to hear such harsh self-criticism from our children. It can also be frustrating and anxiety-provoking as we desperately want them to stop thinking like that! and start being reasonable! since we know that contemptuous self-talk can lead to low self-esteem and difficulty connecting with others. This kind of harsh self-talk is a hallmark of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is an effort to control circumstances that make one feel uncomfortable. The driving force is anxiety. High-achievers love the thrill of the challenge and aren’t deterred by setbacks, whereas perfectionists are motivated by fear of failure and desire to be accepted. Kids who are perfectionistic tend to be self-critical, self-conscious, sensitive to criticism, and might be judgmental of others. They feel chronic anxiety about making mistakes, have strong feelings of inadequacy, and might experience somatic symptoms (genuine headaches, stomachaches) when particularly worried about performance. They might procrastinate and avoid difficult tasks and have trouble making decisions. These symptoms and characteristics have nothing to do with intelligence – often, gifted children who are used to succeeding struggle with imperfection. The concern for anyone with perfectionism is that it can lead to underachieving by avoiding risks (of doing something imperfectly, whether it’s social, academic, physical, etc.) that could have a big positive payoff. It also takes a toll on self-concept, self-worth, self-esteem, and can lead to struggles with mood.
So, how can we support our blossoming perfectionists in grabbing life by the horns, imperfectly?
- Provide unconditional love, respect, and acceptance. This means letting them know that even when they misbehave, or make a mistake, or make a bad choice, they are just as worthy of love and respect as always, and that they are your child and a member of the family no matter how they act. This seems obvious but can be challenging sometimes. It is so easy for a child to hear our frustration with their behavior as a condemnation of their character. For example, hollering, “You know not to run across the road! What is wrong with you? You could’ve been killed!” is easy for a young child to interpret as, “There is something wrong with me. I’m stupid and bad.” Of course, really our message is, “I was scared you would get hit by a car and I need you to remember our rules about road safety.” As much as possible say what you mean, and without intense emotion, especially when angry or anxious.
- Help them come up with realistic goals for themselves. For example, for a child who really struggles with math, doing 80% of the homework might be reasonable (this might be an area for parents to work on, too!).
- Teach them how to break daunting tasks into manageable chunks so they don’t feel overwhelmed at the start (perfect setup for procrastinating, a common struggle for perfectionists).
- When a child melts down after making a mistake, stay calm. Acknowledge their frustration and anxiety without judgment. Remember that all kids are learning not only self-control but also how the world works, and giving up the idea that they and the world should be perfect is harder for some kids than others. Give them names for their feelings, empathize with them, and reiterate that everyone makes mistakes.
- Help them figure out how they can learn from their mistake for next time. Keep in mind, though, sometimes there isn’t anything to learn and the lesson is simply about accepting imperfection.
- Be aware of the praise you give. We tend to overcompensate with excessive praise when we see our child being too hard on themselves. However, a child with perfectionistic tendencies hears the unspoken flip-side of excessive praise as, “if you perform less than this in the future then it will not be good enough and I will not be as proud/impressed/pleased with you.”
- Give reasonable and specific praise, and give it for effort rather than results. This puts the focus on the process of hard work, which they are in control of, rather than outcome, which they often aren’t. A focus on outcome can result in behaviors we actually don’t want, like lying and cheating. The observation, “Wow – you worked really hard on this!” is more meaningful than “This is perfect! I love it!” because it says something positive about their character rather than a thing. It contributes to self-esteem and does not add anxiety about doing it perfectly next time.
- Model being okay with imperfection, that of yours and others. Demonstrate lightheartedness about it, laughing at yourself when appropriate, and also shrugging it off. Be honest about when your mistake is an important one to learn from, and model that.
- Consider seeking treatment if somatic symptoms or unrelenting tantrums are interfering with your child’s life, or if perfectionism is causing difficulty at school. A child psychologist can help you and your child develop insights and skills to change negative thinking or ineffective behaviors, accept what can’t be changed, and accept – no, embrace! – imperfection. A short course of medication might also be helpful if your child has a true anxiety disorder; it can give them a break from all the worrying and a chance to try new skills.
Remember that like any trait, perfectionism can be channeled and used for good! Everyone likes a meticulous dentist, a careful and thorough mechanic, and a detail-oriented accountant. Learning when to let that part of you shine and when to turn it off is the trick, and not an easy thing to learn. But it’s totally possible, and well worth the effort.