Kids these days are under a lot of pressure to succeed, whether it’s in school, sports, the arts — pretty much any activity they take on can be tied to the stress of success. And for some kids, anything less than perfection seems like failure: A single A minus isn’t straight As, or a missed foul shot during the basketball game overshadows the team’s win.
Perfectionism — which psychologists describe as a trait that causes a person to set extremely high standards and refuse anything short of perfection — can have its positives, but often there are dark sides to striving for flawlessness, according to Stephon N. Proctor, PhD, ABPP, a psychologist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Many kids who strive for perfection, but fall short, frequently feel like failures,” according to Dr. Proctor. “And for the kids who do achieve what seems like perfection, so much work is involved in achieving and maintaining that level of success that they aren’t content either.”
So how can you help a child who’s stressed from trying to succeed and achieve? Dr. Proctor offers advice for parenting a perfectionist: how to spot a perfectionist (or perfectionist-in-the-making), how to address the problem, and when to seek help for serious trouble signs.
- Recognize the signs of perfectionism. “Perfectionism typically develops slowly, so you have plenty of opportunities to reverse it if you recognize it,” says Dr. Proctor. In the early years, a child might show a perfectionist streak by having temper tantrums when things don’t go well or when he makes a mistake. Other children may get easily upset by a task that gets frustrating, like building something. An older child, and especially a teenager, might avoid or procrastinate about a task. “Or he might do the opposite,” says Dr. Proctor, “and spend hours on a homework assignment that should take half an hour because he’s rewriting or redoing the assignment several times.” In both the early and later years, a child might also refuse to try a new activity because he’s afraid to fail or thinks it’s too hard.
- Offer praise appropriately. “Focus less on praising your child for outcomes and more on praising the process — especially the hard work that went into the project or the big game. You can say, ‘I’m so proud of you for trying your best. I see you worked really hard on that project,’” says Dr. Proctor. This approach works in young kids, to prevent perfectionism, and in older kids and teens, to curb a perfectionistic streak that’s already taken hold, he adds. While it’s natural for parents to praise achievement, “Try hard to make the proportion of attention you give to the outcome less than the attention paid to the process.”
- Flaunt your imperfections. Fear of failure is behind most perfectionism. But many children rarely see or hear about others who are striving for perfection and coming up short. It’s important to give them a broader picture. “You can say things like, ‘I tried really hard to be the best in a project at work, but I wasn’t. Oh well, at least I tried.’” You can also talk about role models in society who seem perfect, but who actually worked very hard to get where they wound up. Two good examples Dr. Proctor suggests: Michael Jordan, who didn’t make his high school basketball team on the first round, and Thomas Edison, who tried inventing thousands of light bulbs before he got it right.
- Avoid comparisons with other kids. This is a trap even the most well-intentioned parents fall into, according to Dr. Proctor. “Parents may compare a child to a sibling in an attempt to motivate a child, or a parent may ask about the test grades of classmates. But those comparisons make your child feel self-conscious and believe he needs to achieve in order to be valued,” says Dr. Proctor.
- Know when to ask for help. Dr. Proctor and other psychologists at CHOP can help kids change their thought patterns through cognitive-behavioral therapy. Your child’s perfectionist streak may be too much for you to handle if she:
- Shows extremes in her thinking, known as “black-or-white” or “either-or” thinking: either she’s right or she’s a failure.
- Starts to catastrophize situations, saying to herself: “If I get this wrong, I’m going to fail school.”
- Has changes in appetite or weight.
- Expresses feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
- Feels upset most days.
- Shows signs of obsessive compulsive disorder or an eating disorder.
In these cases, your child would probably benefit from an evaluation with a therapist who specializes in behavioral health and anxiety disorders. A therapist can create a treatment plan to manage perfectionist tendencies and help your child develop a healthier attitude about success and even learn to stop fearing failure.
“Mistakes are a natural part of life for children and adults. It’s important for parents to teach this to their children,” says Dr. Proctor. “I like to encourage parents to help their child reframe failures as opportunities to learn how to improve.”