There are two sides to perfectionism in children. A child with perfectionist tendencies tends to embody traits parents love to see in their children. They are upright, responsible, achievement-oriented, just a bit hung back, with a more than average attention to detail for good measure. Most of the time, these do not cause significant issues for the child and help them succeed.
When perfectionism in a child goes so far as to cause them not to commit is where the problems lie. Their measured reluctance is usually not a personality trait at all. Neither is their attention to detail. Typically, their reluctance stems from a deep-seated fear of not getting it right. And their attention to detail is a near-obsession because they want everything to go as planned. For perfectionist children, if they have to do anything, it must be done to the highest standards. Nothing can be amiss. This kind of perfectionism is not healthy. Perfectionism has to be balanced to be healthy. Balanced perfectionism is when the child aspires to the best standards and is also willing to accept things when he or she falls short, learns, improves, and moves on. Here we have an article on teaching children manners.
The Causes of Extreme Perfectionism
A variety of factors can cause extreme perfectionism in children. Perfectionism can also result from a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. Below are some causes of extreme perfectionism.
- Genetics. Gordon Flett, Ph.D., the director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York University, who has been researching perfectionism in children and adults for decades, told the New York Times that perfectionism is heritable. “Some kids may show signs of perfectionism as young as 3 or 4,” he said. I personally don’t believe that this is a strong influence as character tends to be developed by environment so I would look at the following as bigger influences.
- Parental influence. Parents can sometimes be too exacting with their demands and standards. Parents in this category react very harshly when those standards are not met. They might yell, curse, shame, grow moody, or give the silent treatment. Over time, their child begins to view mistakes as something intolerable. They then strive to live up to their parent’s standards.
- Growing up around high achievers. Children are very perceptive and can easily internalize what they see and hear. Growing up in a family of high achievers is by no means a bad thing. It can be a motivator. But how these high achievers interact is what makes the difference. For instance, always attributing their success to their own exacting standards will give a child the impression that they excelled because they never made mistakes.
- Excessive praise. Praising a child for everything they do can be the source of extreme perfectionism. Praise is not bad in and of itself, especially when it focuses on effort. But constantly telling your child that they’re special and that they’re the best at everything might not have the effect you’re expecting. Over time, the child will start to think that they have to be extremely perfect to continue earning your praise.
- A defense mechanism. Children can also use perfectionism as a defense. This happens when a child lives in a chaotic environment where there’s no sense of order. Children thrive and feel safe when there’s structure and predictability. Perfectionism can be their way of trying to feel in control. Usually, it shows up in one form or the other. They might obsess over their diet or grades. Find ways to help your child embrace challenge.
- Social media. The world shrank into a small village with the inception of social media. Your teen on social media will feel like they’re privy to the lives of so many people. There are many revelations every day, sensational reactions, and very harsh judgments passed for minor mistakes. This can instill a mortal fear of making mistakes, a desire to be perfect, and overly critical self-judgment. As you may imagine we have a whole section on social media.
Signs of Perfectionism in Children
As a parent, knowing the signs of perfectionism will enable you to recognize your child’s struggles and extend some help. Below are some signs of perfectionism.
- Have impossible standards for themself.
- Low self-confidence and feeling of inadequacy.
- Extreme self-deprecation.
- Difficulty starting or completing assignments because the work is never up to their standard.
- Physical illness when they fall below expectations.
- Highly sensitive to criticism.
- Difficulty in moving on from mistakes.
- Self-conscious and easily embarrassed.
- Very critical of other people’s mistakes.
- Comparing their success to others, often unfairly.
- Procrastination around tasks.
- Trouble making decisions.
- Refusing to try new things.
- Never satisfied with accomplishment.
- Excessive focus on the negative.
Risk Factors of Extreme Perfectionism
Research into perfectionism began in the early 1990s and has continued to bring meaningful insights. One of such insights is that the ills of perfectionism outweigh its benefits. Research led by Paul L Hewitt, professor of psychology and a registered clinical psychologist, found that extreme perfectionism’s adverse effects appear to be more diverse and pervasive in children than in adults.
According to the research, self-oriented perfectionism is significantly linked with both depression and anxiety in children. And socially prescribed perfectionism is linked not only with depression and anxiety but also with social stress, bottling anger inside, and expressing anger outwardly. While in adolescents, self-critical perfectionism is linked with high anxiety, depression, fear of failure, bodily complaints, perceived parental pressure, social stress, and low self-esteem. Consequently, if left unchecked, perfectionism can have long-term effects on children and teenagers.
How to Help a Perfectionist Child
Below are some tips on how to deal with a perfectionist child.
- Check yourself. Before you start trying to help your child, you need to check that you aren’t the source of their perfectionist tendencies. You may have set a very high standard without knowing it. It might have been seeping out in the way you react to your child’s mistakes, who you compare them with, the things you say about their grades, about the future, or even their bodies. Naturally, children want to please their parents. When they sense your constant displeasure at something, they want to do their best to fix it. Here we discuss more common parenting mistakes.
- Encourage them to focus on the process. A perfectionist child is usually hyper-focused on the results. They are afraid of falling short, of the intense feeling of failure that comes with failing. There are subtle ways to help your child with this. When your child takes part in any academic or extra-curricular activities, don’t ask them about the result. This subtly communicates your priority. Instead, ask them whether they had fun and if they tried. Ask about something in the process.
- Challenge their distorted thinking. Over-generalization is one characteristic of a perfectionist child. “I’m never going to be good at this” or “I’m so stupid” are some of the phrases you might have heard them say. If the occasion is right, challenge them by asking what evidence they have that proves this. Most of the time, perfectionist children struggle to point to conclusive experiences as proof. That’s because they’ve been distorting their thinking. When they’re reluctant to take on a task for fear of failure, ask them what’s the worst that can happen if their feared outcome comes to pass. How terrible is that outcome on a scale of real-life events? What’s the one helpful thing they could say to themself at that moment? Your questions would help tether them to reality. It can help to talk about your own failures and reflect on things that have happened to your child in the past. They will see that the consequences are not as great as they may think.
- Avoid certain words and phrases. Avoid words and phrases that put your child on a pedestal if you’ve been using them. Some of these words include special, genius, perfect, best, brilliant, etc. This is by no means a suggestion that you shouldn’t praise your child. Just be specific about it.
- Talk to them about high achievers in history and society. This might be an excellent way to help a perfectionist child with their fear of failure. “There are many role models who had to deal with failure on their route to success, and they can be a great encouragement to your child,” says Edith Bell, CBT Therapist and Director of Counselling at Familyworks. Walt Disney, for example, was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas?” Also, one of Oprah Winfrey’s first jobs in TV ended badly, with the producer declaring she was “unfit for television.” There are many examples of sports players not being the best when they were younger or missing match-winning shots. In science, Edison is often quoted saying how his failures helped him learn. Any businessman has examples of startups that went bust or big losses. Talking through these with your child will help them realize that the people they may put on a pedestal suffered setbacks and, therefore, will hopefully ease some of the ‘get it right the first time’ anxiety.
Final Thoughts on Helping a Child with Perfectionism
Helping a child with extreme perfectionism isn’t always easy. Parents can sometimes feel like they’re not making much progress as their child’s perfectionist tendencies and ensuing reactions seem to be getting worse. For most children, perfectionism comes from a fear of failure. Whether that be in the eyes of the parents, their peers, or themselves. Experience that failure is not catastrophic, but part of learning will hopefully ease this. This is another way extra-curricular activities can really help. Other than this, it is about praising effort as that is the main component to long-term success and helping your child to learn by reflection as to how, not good enough, probably was.
When can parents seek help? “If perfectionism is really interfering with their happiness and development, it’s time to seek help from a professional,” says Dr. Michele Kambolis, a registered Child and Family Therapist, Parent Educator and Clinical Counselor. Parents should try and get details about their child’s thinking, behavior, eating and sleeping habits before seeing the doctor. Details are always helpful.