By Ryan Cramer
As a parent or care giver you may have noticed that one or more of the children in your care display behaviours and temperaments that are somewhat different to others. This may be particularly evident when they participate in creative activities, do school work, play sports or even during their daily routines. They may seem hesitant and nervous to try new tasks and become upset when their attempts are less successful than they expected. They may seem a little ‘perfectionistic’.
Perfectionism can be defined as an individual’s determination of extremely high standards of performance and behaviour(i). Hagen(ii) (2016) suggests that perfectionism stems from a genetic predisposition combined with environmental factors and an individual’s life experiences.
Perfectionistic tendencies occur on a spectrum(iii). On the one end of the spectrum, are children who seem to thrive under challenging conditions in which they set high standards for themselves and they put in the energy to achieve those standards. This article will focus on those on the other end of the spectrum. These are children with perfectionistic tendencies who struggle to gain positively from their efforts. This is due to the predetermined unrealistic goals they set for themselves. These children are intolerable to mistakes, meaning their perfectionistic efforts provide very little pleasure but rather cause feelings of personal inadequacy.
If your child struggles with perfectionism you may notice the following:
They have self-imposed expectations that are disproportionately high. You may notice that your child gets visibly upset or frustrated when they are working on a task that challenges them. It may be a task they observed their older sibling complete easily and perceive their difficulty as failure instead of attributing their difficulty to their developmental stage.
They may be self-critical, self-conscious and easily embarrassed. Those who struggle with perfectionism may be more attuned to comments about them which they may incorrectly perceive as criticism.
Due to their desire for perfection in many aspects of their lives, failure to achieve this leaves them feeling disappointed, personally inadequate, lacking self-confidence and have anxiety about making mistakes.
Behaviourally, you may notice that they tend to procrastinate due to their stress about facing tasks that they perceive are too difficult and which they may not be able to complete perfectly. Perfectionism also impedes their decision-making process and their ability to prioritise tasks as they scrutinise their choices extensively but then feel to anxious too commit to a decision.
In their interactions with others you may notice that they hold back from engaging fully and seem emotionally guarded. They also tend to be critical of others.
They may complain of physical ailments when they perform lower than they or others expected of them. These may also seem to worsen as a stressful event approaches and may even lead to school attendance difficulties.
If you have noticed some of these behaviours and you are feeling concerned about how to assist your child in dealing with the difficult emotional experiences associated with perfectionism, you could try some of the following:
- Children learn from those around them. When an opportunity presents itself, allow your child to hear about mistakes you make. It is also important for them to observe that although some mistakes have consequences, other mistakes are normal and help us learn. Strategies to cope with making a mistake can also be modelled.
- Encourage them to try challenging tasks and provide them with unconditional support should they make mistakes or fail at the task. Provide positive feedback for their efforts and how they proceeded rather than evaluating and emphasising the outcome.
- Brain storm ways in which they may practise prioritising some tasks as more important than others. It may also be helpful to break activities up into manageable junks.
- Avoid using words such as perfect or excellent but comment on how you admire their work and their effort.
- Teach them that not all situations are within their control, help them identify areas of their lives they can control and those areas they cannot control.
- If you notice your child struggling on a task for an extended period of time, encourage them to take a break and do something relaxing (playing with their pet, going for a walk, playing a game or listening to soothing music).
- Emphasise the importance of positive self-talk and being kinder to themselves. The mind of a child who struggles with perfectionism is usually running on a loop of internalised negative self-talk and definitive words such as must, should and always have to. You may assist them by offering them an empathetic ear and helping them analyse whether their self-talk is fair to themselves. Phrases such as “making mistakes is okay, everyone does; everyone feels good and bad now and then; I am lovable; tomorrow I can try again” are positive self-talk examples.
Perfectionism is often confused with “being OCD”. Although perfectionistic behaviours or rituals may be part of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder there are many other symptoms to this disorder (more can be read here). If you are concerned that your child’s daily tasks, social interactions or mental health may be affected by their perfectionistic tendencies, it may be useful to consult with a health professional. They may be able to assist with the challenges that come with perfectionism to allow your child to feel less burdened by these thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
(i) Yazici, H., & Altun, F. (2015). Gifted and Nongifted Students’ Perfectionism, School Motivation, Learning Styles and Academic Achievement. Croatian Journal of Education – Hrvatski časopis za odgoj i obrazovanje,16(4). doi:10.15516/cje.v16i4.559
(ii) Hagen, A. (2016). Five Telltale Signs Your Child is a Budding Perfectionist. Psych Central.
(iii) Davies, L. Perfectionism in Children. Retrieved from http://www.kellybear.com