No Such Thing as Perfect: How to Help a Child Struggling with Perfectionism
Picture a child who keeps a tidy, well-organized desk in class, a remarkably clean bedroom at home, makes sure his or her homework is perfectly neat and accurate, sets high goals, and expects the best from him or herself every time. The “perfect” child! So what could possibly be wrong?
While it is important for children to learn to set goals and try to be their best selves, for some children these goals and high standards can develop into rigid, all-or-nothing self-expectations and an endless striving for “perfection.”
Perfectionism is characterized by the setting of very high, often unattainable, standards for oneself and becoming self-critical if standards are not reached. If this sounds familiar, here are some things you can do to support your child and help him or her channel their high strivings in more adaptive ways:
Provide unconditional love and respect.
Let them know you love and care for them no matter what they do (or don’t do). Even if they “fail” at something, you still love them.
Give specific praise and help them focus on the process rather than the outcome.
Some examples include: “I love how hard you worked on that.” “You are so determined. I can see you spent a lot of time on that.” “Look at all those ideas! You really put a lot of effort into writing this.” Try to avoid using words such as brilliant, genius, and perfect.
Acknowledge and connect with your child’s negative feelings.
These feelings might include frustration, worry, sadness, or fear. Try to acknowledge the feelings without judging them, trying to “fix” them, or insisting they should actually feel a different way. You may try saying, “It sounds like that was disappointing for you. That’s happened to me too and it can be upsetting for a while.”
Model and encourage self-compassion.
Teach them to talk with kindness to themselves. You might try saying, “When I mess up I think to myself: I made a mistake, but it’s okay. I can try again, or I’ll do better next time.”
Provide opportunities for failure.
Children need to learn that it takes time and lots of practice to master new skills. Whatever you can do to give your child the opportunity to learn that mistakes and set-backs are a part of growth will make these experiences less likely to result in feelings of inadequacy.
Help them set realistic standards for themselves and their time.
Perfectionistic kids are likely to get overwhelmed by their expectations and procrastinate or avoid something if the stakes are too high. Discuss realistic goals with them and help them break assignments into smaller, manageable tasks.
Perfectionistic tendencies can lead to high levels of anxiety and depression, refusal to try anything new or difficult, low self-esteem, and exaggerated reactions to mistakes, which can all interfere with a child’s functioning and contribute to numerous mental illnesses. In this case, your child likely needs more assistance and could benefit from seeing a therapist or psychologist. Our clinical staff is here to support you!
Robyn Matlon, M.Ed., M.A., Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist with specialized training in play therapy, child development, attachment, depression, anxiety, complex trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Robyn conducts comprehensive psychological assessments of children for a range of issues, including learning, attention, and memory challenges, as well as struggles with social-emotional or behavioral functioning. Her approach is strengths-based, collaborative, and draws on psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness and play therapy techniques. Robyn can be reached at Parents Place in Marin County: 415-419-3625 or [email protected].