Is my child a perfectionist?

Your Child and Teen
Is my child a perfectionist?

Perfectionism is when you hold yourself and/or others to unrealistic and unsustainable standards of performance or accomplishment. If something is not done perfectly, it is not acceptable. Perfectionism arises as a response to anxiety and is an attempt to solve the anxiety by intensely monitoring and overthinking your performance. A perfectionist may minutely review or even reject his own effort, or second- guess his decisions or words, searching for any possible mistake.

Children and adults alike suffer from this condition. For a child, the underlying anxiety is usually close to the surface, and tears, tantrums or refusal to try may be seen. An adult may be aware of the anxiety that drives her, or she may have learned to suppress the painful feelings by compulsively achieving or pushing others to achieve. The relief lasts only until the next task is at hand. An inner critic constantly assesses what has been done wrong, normal mistakes or imperfections are seen as failure, and the threat of failure is always near.

Perfectionism and performance anxiety may begin in childhood. A child's need for unconditional love and acceptance is natural and profound. Some children struggle with an early awareness that they are not protected, and then there are many forms their fears may take. Even a well-loved and cared for child may experience unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances that deeply shake his security (illness, a separation from parents). A child may turn to “doing it right” to feel safe again.  Mistaken thinking can develop: the more the child believes that she is loved because of  her performance, the more the fear of not performing and being rejected takes hold underneath.  She may cry when learning something new because she doesn't know it yet.

Caring parents who always praise their child’s efforts can be startled when a five or six year old tears up drawings or schoolwork, or is afraid of giving a wrong answer in class. Typically, the parent will repeatedly reassure the child, “Just do your best. Everyone makes mistakes.” But the child’s fear of not being good enough can be deeper than reassurance reaches.

Efforts to build self-esteem by praise can backfire. The more the adult tells the child how smart or good or talented he is, the more the fear can be fueled.  “If I do something dumb, I will lose your acceptance.” Instead, praise effort and asking for help in a matter-of-fact way: “Good job – you kept on trying when it was hard." “I noticed how you shared with your sister,” goes farther than, “You are such a wonderful big brother,” because the latter presents an image that the child may not be able to live up to the next day.

Self-acceptance, including the acceptance of making mistakes and misbehaving, is a better conceived foundation for security than self-esteem.