How Do I Help a Young Perfectionist?
Q: My husband and I are concerned about Tim, our 7-year-old. He has always worked hard to get things right, but now he has become what we would call a perfectionist. The problem is that he seems to get frustrated and even down on himself when he can’t get things just right, as he sees it, even though he has done a good job. Help!
A: Many children - and their parents - struggle with perfectionism. It is difficult for parents because it is difficult for their children. Here we provide some background and guidance to help children who tend toward perfectionism.
Perfectionist children judge their feeling about an activity's success on whether or not the product meets a particular standard. For example, grades below an "A" might not be sufficient.
Perfectionist children also have an all-or-nothing perspective about their achievements; partial successes feel like full failures. They are not able to feel reasonably good about what they achieve if it isn't the ideal. Other children can base their feelings on whether they have done their reasonable best. For children who are not perfectionists, the process - or their effort - is what matters.
Perfectionism is sometimes described as a "trait," which can be misleading. Traits are often considered genetically based qualities. Examples are being more or less reactive or adventuresome. Some traits seem to affect the likelihood that a child will eventually develop perfectionist tendencies, but children are not predestined to become perfectionist.
Perfectionism is individualistic
Perfectionism is part of the complex way a particular child thinks about his or her relationships, desires, imaginings, moral qualities and experiences. Perfectionist tendencies for an older preschooler or school-age child will be intertwined with different aspects of that child.
This understanding of perfectionism helps explain one of its perplexing aspects: A child is usually a perfectionist only in some areas. This would be unexplainable if perfectionism were a trait. But since each one of a child's qualities has a different purpose and function within his or her own complex psychology, perfectionist qualities appear in some areas and not others.
Reasons for perfectionism
Perfectionism, like any important quality, comes about for different reasons in each and every individual situation. The following are some of the common reasons for children:
- Attempts to over-compensate with perfection for excessive failures (in reality or in their own mind). This is common, for example, with children who have learning challenges.
- Compensating for feelings of guilt.
- Beliefs that achievement will win a parent's love (whether or not this is true).
- Feelings of competition with a sibling or parent.
- Identifying with a parent who is a perfectionist, although perhaps in different ways than the child.
- All-or-nothing orientation to the world.
- Limited ability to tolerate the inevitable disappointment of not making the top grade or hitting the home run.
How you can help
The above list is not exhaustive, but to the extent any of the scenarios pertain to Tim, they are undoubtedly beyond his own awareness. This, combined with Tim's unconscious belief that his perfectionism will solve some inner challenges, makes your task daunting.
You have probably told Tim that you are proud of him for trying, that you hope he can be proud of himself for just doing his best, and that he - like everyone - has areas of greater and lesser talent and natural ability. These are important things to say occasionally, but they are unlikely to make a big difference. Don't beat this drum excessively, because you don't want Tim to feel that his perfectionism is one more indication of not meeting a standard.
Parents have a limited ability to change their child, especially as time goes on. Your best bet is to reframe your task. Instead of trying to change Tim, try to be there to help him. Tell Tim that you see he expects a great deal from himself, which is a good thing (highlighting the value of perfectionism), but you also see that he has difficulty feeling good about himself when he does his best but doesn't reach his personal standard.
This conveys your empathy and concern and defines the perfectionism as his problem. You can follow this by telling him that his perfectionism is his good attempt to help himself feel better about something; it just doesn't always work out.
It is unlikely that Tim will ever stop being perfectionist. That's OK. He will have a valuable quality if he can tone it down. Reaching for the stars and expecting a great deal of himself can be a valuable characteristic - if Tim does not carry it to an extreme, can be flexible, and can take pleasure when he achieves only part of a full goal.
While it is difficult to take a long view, we recommend that you see Tim's perfectionism as something that he will gradually shape and mold with your help. And in the long run, tiny step by tiny step, Tim can transform his perfectionism into a healthy drive for accomplishment.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The specific question may be a composite or illustration of questions families ask Lucy Daniels staff.
To submit a question about children's emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.