June 3, 2022
What is Perfectionism and Why is it a Problem?
It is a classic situation: the job interviewer asks, “What are your weaknesses?” and the interviewee answers “Well, sometimes I’m a bit of a perfectionist.” It is meant to be a “humblebrag,” something self-deprecating that we secretly hope other people will think is impressive. Wanting to produce the best work possible is a good thing, but perfectionism can be extremely damaging, especially for children.
A refusal to accept anything short of perfection can stop children from experimenting and learning from mistakes, it encourages an “all-or-nothing” attitude to study (“If I can’t get straight A’s I’m not going to try at all”), and it causes terrible perfectionist child anxiety in both children and adults. In this article, we are going to look at what causes perfectionism, the signs of perfectionism in children, and how to help perfectionist children.
What causes Perfectionism?
A variety of things can cause us to adopt a perfectionist approach to work and life. Children who are perfectionists often believe that other people—especially the adults in their lives—are perfect and want to emulate them. It also stems from a belief that intelligence is somehow fixed: that your grades at school are not simply a reflection of your current understanding, but somehow indicative of something more innate and unchangeable about yourself. Taken to extremes, perfectionism can be a sign of deeper mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression and disorders such as OCD.
Signs of Perfectionism in Children
One sign of perfectionism in children is frustration. Children who are perfectionists will often become frustrated when faced with something difficult. This is because they are so scared of failure that they do not want to make any mistakes, even in the process of working something out. This can have a very damaging effect on a child’s ability to learn. Learning is messy, and if the child focuses on being “perfect” right from the start, they will not be able to experiment and learn from mistakes.
Sensitivity to criticism
Another sign of perfectionism in children is sensitivity to criticism. Perfectionist children are overly sensitive to criticism. They might cry or throw tantrums if they lose a game or get an answer wrong in class. This stems from the belief that intelligence is fixed, and that grades reveal something about you which cannot be changed.
The use of moral language in describing their work or themselves is also a sign of perfectionism in children. Even children as young as three will often view themselves and others as “good” or “bad,” depending on their work.
Delaying or postponing tasks or projects is another sign of perfectionism in children. It is extremely easy to think that procrastination is a sign of laziness (both in us and in others) but very often it is a sign of anxiety that the work you produce will not live up to expectations. Often, our imagination is perfect, but the moment we start to put things on paper they become much more difficult to reproduce. For the perfectionist, this can be very painful and will often lead the person to give up rather than risk producing sub-standard work.
5 Ways How to Help a Perfectionist Child
Be Careful with Praise
Excessive criticism can be bad for a child’s development, but so can excessive praise. We all want our children to feel happy and proud of what they make or do, and it can be quite easy to feel that praise is an important part of helping children to achieve that. However, children can develop a need for praise. This can turn children into “praise junkies,” children who need constant reassurance from peers and elders in order to feel good about themselves. “Daddy, do you like my painting?” “Did you see me score a goal?” “Did I do it well?” These kinds of questions indicate that the child is looking for external validation.
Rather than directly praising a child’s efforts, encouraging them to praise themselves is a way to help the perfectionist child. Instead of saying “I’m proud of you” try “You must be proud of yourself,” instead of saying “Wow, I like your painting!” ask “How do YOU feel about your work?” instead of saying “You played well,” ask them how they feel they played.
Remember that praise is sometimes a lazy response from an adult, you do not have to really pay attention to what the child has done to say it is good. More difficult is engaging with the work and helping the child to assess it critically on their own terms.
Negative labels can follow children into their adult lives. Telling a child that he/she is not good at something or that he/she cannot do something can impact their willingness to try. This is a perfectly reasonable response. Why would you want to try to do something you believe that you have no aptitude for? However, positive labels can have an equally damaging effect on children’s development.
As with praise for a child’s work, it is extremely easy to imagine that children want to know that they are good at something. “Tommy’s really good at sports,” “Mary has a lot of talent for painting.” But the truth is these labels can be a source of perfectionist child anxiety. When I was a child, people would tell me that I am musically talented. In the end, this caused a great deal of anxiety as I encountered more people who had more talent than I did which made me feel increasingly like a failure.
Is important to have children reflect on their own work and always to be thinking about how they might improve or you have to provide workshops. Do not compare your child to others but allow them to reflect on how the example of others can help them to develop. Remind them that the process of learning is more important than the result we provide.
Process over product
If a child gets an “A” in their test or wins a competition, it can be very tempting to focus on the result. We want our children to know that we value their work and celebrate their success. But too much focus on results can be damaging for children. For a start, it can create perfectionist child anxiety. “What happens if I do not get an A+ on my next test? What happens if I do not win the next competition?”
It can also encourage students to feel that results are all that matters. As an example, consider the following: there are two students, student A studies hard for his test and gets a B+, student B hardly studies at all and she also gets a B+.
There may not be a difference in these students’ results now, but student A has built and practiced study skills, planning, and consistent focus, as well as resilience, and adaptability, and is more likely to have realistic expectations in the future. Student B has not practiced any of these skills and will suffer for it in the future. If we only focus on results, children will not think about the more important aspects of how they learn.
Focus on how the child achieved their result rather than the result itself. Encouraging them to identify ways in which they can grow and develop, without being overly critical is a way to help the perfectionist child.
Learning is a messy process and involves making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. If a child is frightened of mistakes, they will have difficulty learning, and this will hamper their progress, especially as they move from Primary to Secondary Education when things usually get more difficult and there is less teacher support.
Fear of mistakes can lead to procrastination, but if the child accepts that the first time, they try something, they will fail, it will help them to build more realistic goals, and to avoid option paralysis which comes from feeling as though their mistakes define you. Helping a child understand that mistakes are a large part of learning is another way to help the perfectionist child.
Lead by Example
Children learn by imitation. This is true of explicit learning (like learning a new language, or a school subject) but it is even more apparent in implicit things like attitudes. If you feel you cannot be vulnerable or make mistakes infant of your child, or if your child feels like you are perfect, they will be less likely to accept their own mistakes or to respond to them in a healthy way.
It is important to show your child that no one is perfect and that making mistakes is part of learning. Embracing your own mistakes or the fact you do not always have the answers can help the perfectionist child.
If you do not know an answer to a question (even a simple one from your child’s homework) do not pretend you do just to save face. Admit you do not know and then work together to solve the problem with your child. This will show them that even adults sometimes are not sure about things, have problems, and get worried about things, and will provide them with a positive model for dealing with problems.
In conclusion, wanting to produce the best work possible may be a good thing, but perfectionism can be extremely damaging, especially for children. Frustration, sensitivity to criticism, and procrastination in children are signs of perfectionism in children. Once one identifies the perfectionist child, one can employ strategies to help the perfectionist child. With careful use of praise, avoiding labeling, embracing mistakes, and placing importance on the process over the result are ways to help the perfectionist child.
Chris Litherland is from Thurso, Scotland. He has been teaching for over seven years in China, the UK, Hungary, and Spain. He has a background in Music and studied Composition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, Trinity Laban in London, and the University of York. After finishing his master’s at York, he traveled to China to teach and fell in love with teaching. He has been teaching ever since.