How To Help Your Kid Avoid Perfectionism
Rachel* remembers the moment she realized her oldest daughter was a perfectionist. Rose* was 3 and had fallen behind in an impromptu race with a friend. Instead of trying to catch up, she gave up, collapsed on the ground in tears, and wailed, "I don't want to lose!"
Having struggled with perfectionism herself, Rachel understood that this wasn't the typical frustration of a toddler. Rose was mad at herself for failing to live up to an impossible self-imposed standard: she had to be perfect.
Although the word may suggest otherwise, perfectionism doesn't mean being excellent at everything; it's believing that you need to be—and trying extremely hard to make that happen. The trait typically becomes recognizable in early elementary school-aged children, when they are able to understand they're being compared to others, whether in school, sports, or other settings, says Parker Huston, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. Some research has found that it's slightly more common in girls.
In moderation, striving for perfection is socially acceptable, even admirable; any parent would be proud if their kid brought home a glowing report card or set a new record on their swim team. But when carried to an extreme, perfectionism is a risk factor for anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and eating disorders, says Kirsten Gilbert, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. With experts reporting that the pandemic has ushered in a national mental health crisis for kids, knowing whether a child's behavior has crossed the line from helpful to harmful feels all the more crucial.
The Trouble With Perfectionism
Extreme perfectionists often struggle with low self-esteem, are easily embarrassed, and may obsess about every mistake, real or perceived. They're the kids who become so agitated about coloring outside the lines that they'll repeatedly crumple up their paper and start over. If they answer nine out of 10 questions correctly on a quiz, they'll focus on the one wrong answer rather than take pride in the right ones. They'll quit a sports team if they think they're not as good as everyone else. Even though they want to do well in school, they may procrastinate because if they don't start an assignment, they won't risk failing. They can take hours to write a three-line letter because they're so anxious about getting the wording right.
Perfectionism has been linked to both OCD and depression, although the three can and do exist independently of each other. Unlike OCD and depression, which are diagnosable mental health disorders, perfectionism is a mindset that persists over time. People with OCD are more likely to have perfectionist thinking, although many people have perfectionist thinking without accompanying obsessions, compulsions, and disruptive anxiety.
In a study conducted between 2003 and 2017, Dr. Gilbert found that preschoolers who engaged in continuous "performance monitoring"—making comments such as "This is terrible," and "I did that all wrong," while drawing a circle—were twice as likely to develop OCD by their teens than preschoolers who could complete the task without providing a negative running commentary about what they saw as their mistakes.
"Similarly, when a child is never performing up to their expectations, it's not surprising that they might consider themself a failure, and that could potentially contribute to depressive or anxiety symptoms," Dr. Gilbert says. "However, if you identify a child's perfectionistic tendencies at a young age, you can help them learn to be less self-critical of their mistakes and theoretically help decrease the likelihood of psychiatric disorders."
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Part of the challenge for parents is that kids who are perfectionists try to create the illusion that they have everything under control. Instead of saying they don't want to go to school because there's a test they want to avoid, they may feign a stomachache. "It's difficult to know if your kid is struggling if they're hiding it from everybody," says Anisa Khaliq, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Edmonton, Canada. And even the most well-intentioned parents can inadvertently contribute to perfectionism by encouraging their children to do their best, Dr. Gilbert adds.
Doctors often suggest seeking help if a child is in such distress that they aren't able to function in their daily life, but with perfectionists, you don't need to wait to get to that point, Dr. Khaliq says. "Your parental instincts can tell that something is off about your kid." If you're concerned, talk to your pediatrician, family doctor, or school counselor, who can refer you to a psychologist or mental health professional.
Whether your kid is occasionally too hard on themself or has a persistent never-good-enough mindset, certain strategies can help them develop a healthier attitude.
Address the unwelcome guest in their head
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have figured out how to deal with critical self-talk. For children who are too young to understand the word perfectionism, Dr. Huston suggests starting with an explanation, followed by a question: "Some of us have a voice inside our head that sounds kind of mean or isn't happy very often. It says that if we're not perfect, we have to do something again until we do it right. Do you have a voice like that?" Give the voice a name, even one that's a little silly, suggests Dr. Huston. That makes it easier to refer to and more likely that your child will talk about it. As children grow older, you can start using the word perfectionism to explain why that voice exists.
Empathize with their frustration
Telling a child who is clearly not succeeding that they're doing great isn't helpful, and neither is scolding them for having a meltdown. The first is a false reassurance; the second is punitive and likely to make things worse. "Acknowledge they're in some pain," Dr. Khaliq says. "You can say, 'Let me give you a hug. It's OK to lose sometimes, and you will be OK.'" Part of your job as a parent is helping your child learn to tolerate bad feelings and understand that the bad feelings pass, Dr. Khaliq says.
Praise effort, not just success
Congratulating your child only if they do well on a test or win a game can lead them to believe, "If I don't win, Dad might not love me anymore" or "I am nothing if I don't win." Praising your child for putting in effort helps them see that learning is a process, and that mistakes are not only inevitable, they're useful.
Acknowledge how challenges help you learn
At the beginning of third grade last fall, Dr. Huston's daughter complained about a test that measured her reading level. "She was bemoaning the fact that the test was incredibly difficult," he recalls. "I pointed out to her, if it wasn't difficult, you wouldn't have anything to learn this year, or room to grow." It's also useful to tell your children or read to them about well-known people who struggled before they became successful, Dr. Huston says. "Steve Jobs failed multiple times, his company was taken away from him, and he dropped out of college," adds Dr. Gilbert. "He was a great person to say, 'If I didn't have those experiences, I wouldn't have been able to develop Apple. I needed those mistakes to get where I am.'"
Share positive statements
Teaching your child to repeat encouraging aphorisms can help counteract their negative self-talk. Dr. Huston suggests writing down phrases such as "Nobody's perfect," "All I can do is try my best and that's enough," and "Practicing helps me get better at things," and tucking them into your child's lunchbox or pencil case. "They can say it to themselves before and after they do something difficult, or play a sport, or enter a competition of some sort."
Cincinnati psychologist Renee Goff, Psy.D, still uses the mantra her mother, who is Chinese, taught her when she was struggling with perfectionism in high school: yìshù, pronounced "ee-soo," which means "art or uniquely artistic. It is not perfect, but it's beautiful."
"She said, yìshù, look around you; there is beauty in these flaws," Dr. Goff recalls. "I hear her voice sometimes when I feel I'm doing something perfectionistic, and then I let it go."
You don't have to be perfect for your kids. In fact, it's a good idea to tell them about some of your struggles and failures. "Otherwise, your kids may put you on a pedestal," Dr. Goff says.
Rachel has discovered that the kitchen is an ideal place to set a positive example. A recipe developer, Rachel often cooks with Rose, now 7. "Cooking is messy, and you don't get the same results every time," Rachel says. "Rose loves sunny-side up eggs, but it's a challenging exercise for a perfectionist. I think cooking has taught her to embrace her so-called mistakes and the unexpected results." Rachel's goal is for Rose to stop judging herself and stop being afraid that others are judging her, and there are signs that the message is getting through, and not just in the kitchen. Rose recently came up with her own mantra: "Perfect is boring."
Offer picture books with the right message
Here are some wise-but-fun stories to help kids put perfectionism into perspective.
Beautiful Oops, written and illustrated by Barney Saltzberg
An interactive book that shows kids there's more than one way to look at a mistake: A torn piece of paper turns into an alligator's mouth, a bent corner becomes a penguin's head, and a hole morphs into a telephoto lens.
Pilar's Worries, written by Victoria M. Sanchez, illustrated by Jess Golden
Pilar loves to dance, but her anxiety and fear of mistakes—and not just in ballet—keep her from participating in everything, including tryouts for the dance show at school. Her understanding mom helps her find the confidence to overcome her fears.
The Good Egg, written by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald
The good egg is cracking, literally, under the pressure of trying to be perfect and get the rest of the eggs in the carton to fall in line. But when he takes a little time off, not only does his shell miraculously come back together, he gains an important new perspective.
The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes, written by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein, illustrated by Mark Pett
Beatrice Bottomwell never makes mistakes—but after she makes a big one and the world doesn't fall apart, she realizes it's a lot more fun to be yourself than to try to be perfect all the time.
The Dot, written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Vashti is so convinced she's a terrible artist that she won't even try to draw a picture. But when her teacher displays her effort—a single dot on a big sheet of paper—Vashti silences the negative voice in her head.
* Name has been changed for privacy.