Perfectionism in Children - Symptoms, Risks & Tips for Parents

How to Deal With a Perfectionist Child

You must be friends with some parents who claim that their children are perfect and whatever they do, they do it with perfection. A lot of parents tag their children as perfectionists without realising that perfectionism could be a problem. As a parent you obviously want your child to do well in school and life. And it is great to teach your child to aim high and gain mastery over new concepts early in life, but you don’t have to force them to reach for stars. It is one thing to get satisfaction from doing difficult tasks and succeeding but is a whole other ball game never to be satisfied by one’s own performance because of having unrealistic goals. Here we attempt to explain perfectionism and how it can affect children over time.

What Is Perfectionism and What Are Its Types?

A perfectionist is someone who establishes improbable goals for himself. He then pressurizes himself into trying to achieve unrealistic expectations. The perfectionists then beat themselves up over their dismal failure if they are unable to meet up to such high and idealistic standards. If they do succeed, they are incapable of enjoying the limelight over what they have accomplished. They often credit luck or fate for their success and start worrying that they won’t be able to replicate the results the next time. Perfectionists can be in any one of the forms mentioned below:

1. Self-oriented Perfectionists

People who have improbable expectations for themselves.

2. Other-oriented Perfectionists

People who set extremely high standards of performances for others.

3. Socially Prescribed Perfectionists

People who accept that society, parents, or teachers and coaches, have unrealistic expectations of them.

A nervous child

Where Does Perfectionism Come from in Children?

Perfectionism doesn’t mean that children are looking to be perfect. Rather, it is about needing to evade the consequences of failure or their mistakes. The penalties of their perceived failure can be factual or imaginary. The thought of these failures can affect the lives of children so much so that they cause anxiety and stress in our little ones.

Such behaviour can develop because of how the child perceives and understands messages received as a part of their early life experiences. Children register messages about achievement, success, praise, failures, and admonition and groom themselves according to what they believe are model standards.

The premises behind perfectionism is that – “If there is no attempt, there is no failure and therefore no humiliation.” Children who believe this are at risk of child perfectionism tantrums and meltdowns that may require psychological counselling. Certain factors that create perfectionism are:

1. Biological Factors

Data records that perfectionism is meticulously connected to some mental illnesses, for example- OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and eating disorders. This makes scientists believe that a certain biological component is ingrained into perfectionism.

2. Perfectionists Parents

Parents who believe they are perfectionists are most likely to raise a child who is a perfectionist. Genetic disposition could be a reason here or a child witnessing their parent’s search for perfection could also reflect in the child.

3. Academic Pressure

If a child scores less marks, he may fear that it will affect his choice of colleges or his future in some way. This could make him believe that he has to be perfect everywhere.

4. Parental Influences

Parents who praise their child for being “the brightest, most intelligent, most athletic, or supremely talented” could mislead their child into believing that faults are bad. This drives them to try and succeed at any cost.

A parent making her child study

5. Sensationalism of Performance

Media and social media platforms depict achievers and successful people as being perfect. Athletes, actors, musicians, and even politicians are sensationalised for their perfect lives, and even a tiny slip is flashed as a failure or a fall from grace. From elite athletes to the latest pop star, the media often portrays people as perfect. This creates a facade that one has to be perfect to be popular.

6. Desire to Please

Children also tend to look at perfectionism to please everyone. They are probably led to believe that pleasing everyone by being perfect will somehow reduce conflict and stress for people around them.

7. Low Self-worth

Perfectionists tend to focus on their flaws and underplay their accomplishments. This, however, will prevent them from feeling fulfilled. A child who feels bad about himself may think he is only as good as his achievements.

8. Trauma

A traumatic childhood experience could cause feelings of detachment or a lack of love that he’ll try to fill up with trying to achieve perfection.

Signs of Perfectionism in Children

The behaviour of perfectionists children can be observed very easily. Following are the traits of perfectionists children.

  • They are highly sensitive to critics.
  • They believe their work isn’t up to the mark and always have difficulty finishing tasks.
  • They procrastinate to avoid stressful and difficult tasks.
  • They are very self-critical and easily embarrassed.
  • They are equally critical of others around them.
  • They have great trouble prioritising their tasks.
  • They have very low tolerance levels when a blunder is made.
  • They have extreme anxiety associated with failure.
  • They have exceptionally high expectations for themselves but low confidence.
  • They are socially inhibited and emotionally cut off.
  • They experience physical ailments such as headaches when they perform below expected standards set by themselves or others.

How Can Parents Help a Child Who Exhibits Extreme Perfectionism?

As parents, you must set the right standards for your child. A child’s behaviour reflects the behaviour around them, mostly parental behaviour. Here are a few tips on how to help a perfectionist child:

1. Provide Unconditional Care and Respect

Take care of your child and respect him whether he has performed well or not. Give him the warmth and love that he deserves. Praise him that he at least attempted and finished the job.

2. Praise the Effort, Not the Outcome

Praise your child for the hard work they put into studying, rather than the score. Tell your child what he did wrong and how he can do it better the next time if he fails. Avoid using words like genius, brilliant, perfect etc. that send the child over the moon.

3. Examine and Decrease Competitiveness

Do not emphasize on winning always. While playing games at home, do not make a noise about who won or lost. Do not make your child feel compete for little things like who ate their meal first or who sang a song better. Avoid comparing children with each other.

4. Acknowledge without Judgment

Be a good listener. Acknowledge your child’s negative emotions like irritation, anxiety, sorrow, and fear. Use positive reinforcement to let your child know that it is good to express negative emotions, but not in a negative way. Let your child understand that even if he fails, he will be loved.

5. Provide a Structured and Uncluttered Environment

Ask your child to maintain a notebook expressing his feelings in a structured manner. Teach him to prioritise his tasks and break down his work into smaller, manageable pieces.

A woman explaning a young boy

6. Change Goals from Perfection to Completion

Constantly remind your child that the goal is to complete and not perfection. Yes, perfection is good but kids should not be obsessed with it. Make children understand that there are no failures. They should treat their setback as feedback and make improvements for the next time.

7. Foster a Growth Mindset

Encourage high standards but explain the meaning of quality work. Include them in creating realistic and acceptable standards for themselves. Support them and encourage them if they perform at a lower standard than expected. Teach them to perform better and not give up if their performance lacks.

8. Talk About Your Mistakes

Display behaviour that you want your child to learn. Speak to your child about how you as a parent are not perfect. Explain kids about your own mistakes and how you overcame situations that stumped you. Help them realise how it is not possible to complete each task without doing mistakes and that you as a parent have struggled with tasks too.

What Are the Potential Risks of Perfectionism?

Trying to achieve excellence all the time can be very tiring, both mentally and physically. Children run the risk of burnout when they try too hard. In order to be perfect, your child may face the following problems.

  • The constant need to be perfect will make your child anxious. This anxiety will prevent children from succeeding because they are always looking for more than they can cope with.
  • Children can mask their pain to look perfect on the outside. This could lead to long-term emotional trauma in children.
  • Mental health issues like depression, lack of self-worth, and anxiety are common for children who are after perfection because it is too idealistic and cannot always be achieved.
  • Higher levels of stress can be emotionally and physically damaging because the child is trying so hard never to make a mistake.

When to Consult a Doctor

Speak to a professional if you see signs of social withdrawal and extreme anxiety in your child. Also, look for signs of aggression at their perceived failure at a task and get help from a mental health counsellor.

Address extreme perfectionism at an early stage and nip it in the bud by taking the right measures. Use positive words and show lots of love to your child, and seek counselling if required to bring in a positive self-image in your child.

Also Read: Tips to Deal With an Overly Emotional Child

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