Perfectionism in kids: How to help your child
Do you have a little perfectionist on your hands? I often hear people joking about perfectionism in kids (and in adults). They might make flippant remarks about being “a bit of a perfectionist” themselves or having a child who like things to be ‘just so’. In fact, being a perfectionist is often spoken about as though it is an admirable quality. Perfectionists work hard. They’re successful, motivated, high achievers. And they put in lots of effort to do things well, right?
But perfectionism in kids can be a serious problem. And striving to do your best, having high standards, and being driven to succeed, is NOT the same as perfectionism.
In fact, for some kids, this drive to do well becomes all-encompassing and overwhelming. Instead of striving to do their best, they strive to be flawless. To never make a mistake. They set impossibly high, unreachable goals. They become incredibly frustrated and self critical when they can’t reach these goals. And the effect on their self esteem, on their happiness, and on their mental health, can be devastating.
Perfectionism in kids stops them from completing tasks, from participating in class, from forming friendships, and enjoying sports. It can cause high levels of anxiety. Avoidance. Depression. Low self esteem. It stops kids from enjoying their lives and takes over everything they do. So how do you know if your child is a perfectionist?
What does perfectionism in kids look like?
The symptoms will vary from child to child, and can depend on your child’s age. But they may include:
- Big meltdowns when a mistake is made or your child thinks that what they are doing is not ‘perfect’
- Being overly cautious or reluctant to try new things
- High sensitivity to criticism (real or perceived)
- Not finishing school work or other projects because the work is never ‘good enough’
- Procrastination and avoidance of difficult tasks due to fear of failing
- Repeating tasks over and over until they get it ‘just right’
- Taking a long time to complete tasks due to constantly checking for mistakes
- Self criticism and negative self talk like, “I’m no good at this, this is terrible, I can’t do anything right”
- Tendency to be critical of others
- Trouble with decision making, planning and prioritisation of tasks
Where does perfectionism in kids come from?
As with anything, your child’s perfectionism likely has a variety of causes. Some genetic or biological, and some more environmental or situational. Things like your own tendency towards perfectionism, having low self esteem, your child’s temperament, a biological predisposition to certain mental illnesses, and even trauma can be contributing factors.
But at it’s core, perfectionism in kids is very closely tied to anxiety. In fact, perfectionism and anxiety have a bit of a complicated relationship with each other, because perfectionism can be both a cause AND a symptom of anxiety. For example, anxiety and fear of failing, embarrassing themselves, or letting others down can fuel the need to continue working on something until it is “perfect”. But this continual need to always strive for more, or to be better, can also create and perpetuate the cycle of anxiety as it prevents your child from actually achieving their goal.
So what can you do about it?
How can I help my child overcome perfectionism?
1. Be mindful of your language
Children are often worried that we will withdraw our love and approval when they disappoint us or do the wrong thing. And your little perfectionist is particularly sensitive to criticism, so of course it stands to reason that you should be mindful of using overly harsh or critical language. But try also to avoid using loaded words like “perfect”, “outstanding”, or “genius”. These words all convey a very specific message about standards and expectations that your child may struggle with or feel pressure to meet. Try toning it down, just a little.
2. Check your expectations
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having high standards. We want our kids to try their hardest and reach their full potential. But be very clear that you don’t expect perfection. Pushing children to achieve perfection is demoralising and damaging to their self esteem. If your child feels you expect perfection, they will strive to reach it in order to gain your approval. Ensure your expectations are a match for your child’s personality, ability, and development.
3. Focus on the process, not the outcome
Try to avoid praising your child for the end result. Don’t congratulate them for getting an A on their spelling test – instead acknowledge the effort and hard work that went into preparing for the test. This will help them strive to do their best and encourages them to approach challenging tasks, and take risks, regardless of what they think the outcome may be.
4. Help your child set realistic goals
If your child sets impossibly high goals for themselves, help them find more achievable goals. The best kind of goals to encourage are those that are achievable with effort. Help them break the goal into small, manageable steps. Discuss potential obstacles and brainstorm solutions. What do they need to do/learn/seek help with in order to reach their goal? Helping them get specific about how they’ll reach their goal will give them a clear idea of whether it’s achievable.
5. Challenge unhelpful thinking
Perfectionists tend to be quite rigid thinkers, often engaging in all-or-nothing or black and white style thinking. If something isn’t perfect, then its terrible. If they didn’t get 100% on their exam, then they’ve ‘failed’. If they can’t meet an unrealistic standard then they’re “stupid” or “not good at anything.” So if you notice your child engaging in this type of thinking, gently encourage them to find the “grey areas” and consider alternative ways of thinking about the situation. Ask them to give you evidence from their life that their thought is true. Ask them what they would say to a friend about the work in front of them. Or try asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” It’s very rarely going to be as bad as they think. You can find more tips for dealing with negative self talk in My Self Esteem Activity Book.
6. Teach healthy coping skills
Give your child skills and tools to cope with uncomfortable emotions like frustration, anxiety and disappointment. These emotions cause your perfectionist to give up when they encounter challenges, or to completely avoid tasks. Encourage them to use skills like mindfulness to learn how to accept all emotions rather than allowing their fear, anxiety or frustration to control how they behave and get in the way of their success. You can find lots of fun mindfulness activities for your child in my mindfulness activity book for kids here.
7. Celebrate failure
Yes, I know this one may sound a little strange, but stay with me. Why would we celebrate failures? Because we can learn from them! Talk to your child about the times you’ve made mistakes, been knocked back, not reached a goal, or failed at something. Talk about what you learned from the situation and how you coped with it. Help your child understand that failure is a normal part of life and learning and that it happens to everyone! Acknowledging and learning from failure is a big part of encouraging a growth mindset in kids. Encouraging a growth mindset is a great way to encourage learning and help children reach their full potential, without the pressure and focus on getting things “right”. Find more growth mindset ideas and activities here.
8. Be an “imperfect” role model
Be conscious of your own self talk and expectations of yourself. Are you a bit of a perfectionist yourself? Do you chastise yourself out loud when you make mistakes? Set unrealistic standards and goals? Your child sees and hears these things and will take their cue from you. Work on your own inner critic. Discuss your own mistakes with your child. Ask them for help with things. Say, “I don’t know”. Make it clear that no-one is perfect, not even you!
9. Have fun!
One of the things I often ask families to do when one (or more) of the family members is struggling with perfectionism, is to go and fun together doing something they’re not very good at. Can’t sing? Go do some karaoke together and laugh at how bad you are! Don’t have good hand-eye-coordination? Go and play a terrible game of tennis together! Show your children that it’s ok to be imperfect, and that you can still have fun even when you make mistakes!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.