Top tips to spot and help perfectionism in children
Children who are perfectionists can suffer from their own mindset. We discuss how to spot perfectionism in children and gentle ways to help, improving their confidence and quality of life.
Perfectionism is an often-misunderstood problem that affects some children. If your little one is becoming a perfectionist, you may have seen some of the signs already. They may be unable to sleep because they’ve left something untidy and they may get overwhelmed and burst into tears from not being able to complete a task perfectly. It can be very difficult for them to get satisfaction from anything because ‘perfect’ can be such an unrealistic expectation. As parents, it’s our responsibility to try to spot these kinds of things early and to do whatever we can to help our little ones.
THE PRESSURE OF PERFECTIONISM
There is a big difference between standards and perfectionism. If your child has high standards, and expects themselves to try hard and perform well, that’s a good thing. If they’re aiming to be perfect at all times, they’re bound to be disappointed from time to time. The targets that perfectionists set are totally unrealistic.
To make it worse, they then pile extreme amounts of pressure on themselves to hit these targets. More often than not, they will miss these targets (because they’re nearly impossible to hit) and they will focus entirely on what went wrong instead of celebrating what went right. To make matters worse, if they do achieve their goal, they will find it very difficult to acknowledge this achievement. They’ll even put this success down to luck or a ‘once-off’, insisting that they won’t be able to do it next time.
PERFECTIONISM COMES IN DIFFERENT FORMS
Research suggests that there are three distinct types of perfectionism that your little one may be experiencing.
Self-oriented perfectionism is probably the type we all immediately think of when we hear the word ‘perfectionism’. The child in this case will set almost impossible goals for themselves and expect to achieve them. They will be very disappointed when they fail to reach these unreasonable goals.
In other-oriented perfectionism, the child will have very high expectations for others. They will expect others to perform to an unrealistic level with no real room for deviation.
Socially prescribed perfectionists
A socially prescribed perfectionist believes that others have these irrationally high expectations for them. This could be a parent, a teacher or a sports coach. The child may think that the adult in this situation is presuming that they will reach some extreme standard and will be deeply disappointed if they fall short.
Children may suffer from any or all kinds of perfectionism and it can genuinely affect their quality of life.
HOW TO SPOT PERFECTIONISM
There are lots of telltale signs of perfectionism that you may be able to use to identify whether or not your child is a perfectionist.
Your little one may:
- Be very sensitive to criticism
- Be hard on themselves and others, and embarrass easily
- Find it hard to make decisions
- Get anxious around failure
- Procrastinate to avoid challenges
- Struggle to complete tasks because they can’t do it perfectly
- Be eager to please
WHERE DOES PERFECTIONISM COME FROM?
Research has shown that there are a number of factors that can contribute to perfectionism.
When we praise our children for achieving things, we should avoid putting too much weight into it. We can be happy if they’ve done well but they shouldn’t feel undue pressure to succeed. Similarly, if they fall short we should let them know that that’s okay and that success isn’t all that’s important.
Children who struggle with self-esteem often strive for perfection because they feel that they don’t have any value of their own. They may feel that their only value comes from their accomplishments.
Social media depicts perfect people living perfect lives. It’s easier for adults to see through this but it sets unrealistic expectations for children. They find it much harder to understand that a celebrity or sports star is just a normal human being with their own flaws too. Many children become perfectionists by trying to replicate what they see online.
There can be a huge amount of pressure on children to get good results in school, whereas the focus should perhaps be on their effort. This pressure pushes them to aim for results that may be genuinely out of their reach, leaving them constantly disappointed.
EFFECTS OF PERFECTIONISM
Perfectionism can have strongly negative effects on the development of your little one including, but not limited to the following:
- They may develop anxiety over making mistakes and fear of trying new things
- They may experience much more stress, causing them to suffer emotionally and even physically
- They may hide their emotions because they’re afraid of being seen as anything other than perfect
- The never-ending pressure of perfectionism means they are more at risk of mental health problems
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO HELP
Thankfully, there are ways that we can help our little ones tackle perfectionism.
Effort over results
A great place to start dismantling your little one’s struggles with perfectionism is to make sure that you focus on their effort over their results. It’s much more important that your child applies themselves and tries as hard as they can, than what results they get. Communicate with your child and let them know that all you want is for them to do their best.
How they talk to themselves
Working with your child on how they talk to themselves will help them to rebalance. If your child is a perfectionist, you may have noticed that they perform a lot of negative self-talk. You can step in and encourage them to speak about themself in a nicer manner. If they’re struggling to comprehend, ask them if they would speak so harshly about their sibling or parent.
Help your child to do things that make them feel good about themself. In particular, try activities that focus on having fun rather than achieving anything. Positive experiences like this, with the pressure taken off, will increase your little one’s self-esteem.
We can’t control everything
A big lesson that a young perfectionist needs to learn is that there are some things that are out of their control. Encourage them to try their best and see what happens. Explain to them that there are many aspects of every situation that can’t be controlled. For example, “You can’t control what test scores the other children are going to get. All you can do is your best.”
As parents, we have high hopes for our children. We want them to do well and succeed in life. But we should avoid heaping these expectations onto our children. They may feel totally overwhelmed and not be able to handle this level of pressure.
Dealing with failure
Talk to your little one about how best to handle failure. Showing them how to express themselves, and how to express their disappointment if something doesn’t go to plan, will help them to get over failure and not dwell on it for too long.
Talk about your own failures
One excellent method for helping your child to deal with these challenges is to talk to them about your own failures. You can tell them about that exam you failed, or when you went for something and it didn’t really work out. The moral of the story is that nothing bad happened and that you’re still a good person. Failures happen and that’s okay.
Sit with your child and assist them in coming up with realistic goals for anything that they’re working on. Teach them the issues with setting unrealistic goals. This will help to steer them away from perfectionism and show them what normal goals look like.
PERFECTIONISM IS AN OBSTACLE NOT A PATH
As before, there is no problem with high standards and lofty goals. They can be achieved over time with plenty of effort. Perfectionism will actually get in the way and prevent your little one from achieving their dreams. If you feel that your child is really struggling, consult with their doctor. They will have plenty of advice on how to help your little one to cope and strategies to move forward.