We’d all like our children to strive for excellence. After all, don’t we want them to be the best they can be? To go for the gold? To shine?
For most kids, those lofty goals are simply, well, lofty goals. But some children see things just a bit differently. They take that drive for excellence and turn it into a thirst for perfection. And that, experts say, can create considerable stress—for the kids and for their parents.
“Perfectionism is the pursuit of excellence taken to the extreme,” says Rosemary Callard-Szulgit, author of Perfectionism and Gifted Children. “It interferes with everyday life.”
Perfectionists often feel there’s only one way to do something: the perfect way. Kids take this thought process a step further, experts say, figuring, “If it’s not perfect, it’s a failure, and I’m a failure, too.”
Lexy Relph says her 5-year-old daughter, Isabelle, is a perfectionist. “She’s normally a very outgoing, positive person, but if she feels like she’s not going to be perfect at something, she won’t even try it,” says Relph. “It holds her back from undertaking fun activities and succeeding in some areas, because she’s afraid she won’t be good enough.”
The way perfectionist children manifest their obsession varies, but according to Jan Faull, a Seattle child development and behavioral expert, perfectionist kids usually fall into two categories: underachievers and overachievers. Underachievers tend to be paralyzed by their perfectionism. Afraid they may make a mistake or fail, they avoid making decisions and trying new things. Overachievers push themselves relentlessly to do everything perfectly, says Faull.
Peryl Manning’s 6-year-old son, Jack, is an overachiever. Rather than giving up, Jack persists at a task until it’s perfect. “If he’s working on writing the number 8, he’ll erase it 10 times before he gets it right,” she says. “He does really well in school and all his activities, and people are always telling me what an amazing boy he is.” But if he can’t achieve perfection, he’ll fall apart, says Manning.
The inability to live up to unrealistically high standards can have an impact on a child’s mental health, says Faull. “Perfectionism is an illusion. It’s unattainable, so the child can never meet his goal.” This constant “failure” causes stress in young children, and can lead to anxiety and depression, she says.
Where it begins
So where does this need to be perfect come from? Research shows that firstborn children are often perfectionists (perhaps because first-time parents feel they need to get everything “just right”). So are gifted children. And while a gifted child’s thinking is accelerated, her abilities may not be—and that can cause frustration. “These kids don’t have the skill or ability yet to achieve what they see in their minds,” says Callard-Szulgit.
But typically, that drive comes from mom and dad, experts say. Though parents may not realize it, they often encourage the behavior through their own perfectionistic tendencies or by the way they praise their child. “Constantly telling a child, ‘You’re wonderful, amazing and perfect’ in an attempt to build their self-esteem is different than saying, ‘I love you. You’re so special in my life,’” says Callard-Szulgit. The “you’re amazing” praise qualifies the child’s behavior and puts pressure on them to live up to their parents’ expectations.
How to help
Are there perfectionists growing up in your house? You can help them find balance, suggests Faull. “Don’t discount their feelings,” she says. “Acknowledge their disappointment and remove the source of frustration, if possible.”
Leave the “scene of the crime” and go for a walk. This helps distract your child from obsessing over making something perfect and offers him an opportunity to talk about it—and to release some of the stress, says Callard-Szulgit.
Additionally, focus on effort rather than achievement. “Instead of telling Isabelle she drew a beautiful picture, we tell her we like how she is trying her hardest,” says Relph.
Read children’s books that deal with perfectionism. Allow your child to see you try and fail at something, and speak regularly about how everyone makes mistakes, including people your child looks up to. And encourage unstructured, imaginative play. There can be a great benefit when perfectionist children do not have anything—or anyone—to compare themselves to.
Above all, don’t try to talk kids out of being perfectionists, says Faull. “This is who they are.”
Andrea Dashiell is a local freelance writer.