How to help a perfectionist child
As parents, we all hope to see our children achieving and fulfilling their potential. But while some kids need constant encouragement and chivvying to do their best at school, others are obsessed with perfection and beat themselves up if they’re not excelling.
‘In some situations, perfectionism is a positive trait, and something we want to encourage,’ says Edith Bell, director of counselling at Familyworks and spokesperson for the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. ‘Children who have perfectionist tendencies demonstrate good focus and attention to detail, and produce high quality work.’
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But children who set unattainable standards for themselves can become excessively self-critical, compare themselves negatively to other children, and in some cases, can develop mental health problems.
What makes a child perfectionist?
Many factors contribute to perfectionism in children. In some cases, it’s a personality trait that they’re born with, but family dynamics also play a part. ‘It’s more common in children whose parents are high achievers, and is probably also more likely to affect first-born children, as parents learn from experience and tend to be more relaxed with subsequent children,’ says Edith.
The education system, with its focus on assessment, may contribute to a child’s perfectionist tendencies, particularly as they get older and face tests such as SATs and the 11+. Teachers, under pressure to get good results, may drum the need to achieve into their pupils, and a perfectionist child may end up feeling that nothing less than exceptional is acceptable.
Parents, too, sometimes inadvertently encourage perfectionism. ‘We often put too much value on results, and not enough on hard work,’ explains Edith. ‘Anxiety is also contagious, so if a parent is worried about their child’s achievement, the pressure can rub off.’
Perfectionism often becomes apparent around the age of six to seven, when children begin to compare themselves with others, but it can be seen even in pre-school children. Girls seem particularly vulnerable to perfectionism.
Signs of a perfectionist child
Recognising perfectionism in a culture that expects and encourages children to work hard and do their best can be tricky. But there are certain signs that suggest that a child is putting themselves under too much pressure to be perfect. These include:
- Setting themselves exceptionally high, and often unrealistic, standards – not just in schoolwork but also in other areas such as sport and music.
- Being highly self-critical (for example, referring to themselves as ‘stupid’ or ‘thick’), and being critical of others who make mistakes or don’t do well at school.
- A lack of self-confidence, and a need for constant reassurance.
- Reacting disproportionately – for example, with tears or rage – if they underperform even in small ways, such as losing one or two marks on a spelling test.
- Spending an unhealthy amount of time on homework, and obsessing over not just the content but also the presentation.
- Being oversensitive to criticism, even if it’s constructive.
- Getting extremely anxious about tests and exams.
- Procrastinating and trying to avoid tasks that they find difficult.
- Symptoms of anxiety, such as headaches, stomach aches, tearfulness and trouble sleeping.
The problem with perfectionism
Although perfectionism can be a useful trait, children who are too obsessed with perfection can be at risk of mental health problems. Recent research from children’s charity Place2Be found that 63 per cent of primary school children feel ‘worried all the time,’ while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers reports children as young as six are suffering from exam stress.
‘For perfectionist children, their entire sense of self-worth can depend on their achievement, but it’s simply not possible to succeed 100 per cent of the time,’ explains Edith. ‘Even if a child is the cleverest in their class, there will always be someone cleverer elsewhere, so they can never meet their own expectations.’
Even when perfectionism doesn’t lead to mental health problems, it can affect children’s quality of life. They often fail to find enjoyment in anything – whether in school or outside – because they never live up to their own standards. Their drive to be the best can cause arguments with family and friends, and their obsession with perfection may mean that hobbies and play are squeezed out because they spend so much time on homework, sports or music practice.
Ironically, perfectionist children can be at risk of underachieving. They may give up easily if they think they’re not going to get full marks, and avoid tasks that they know they’re going to find difficult. They might feign illness to get out of school if they’re struggling with something, or refuse to hand in work unless it’s perfect. They might also put excessive amounts of time into their schoolwork, but not always do as well as other children. ‘It’s the law of diminishing returns: investing more time doesn’t necessarily mean their work will be better,’ Edith adds.
Helping your perfectionist child
Perfectionist children can be difficult to help, because in their eyes, nothing other than 100 per cent is good enough. But there are ways to help your child develop a healthier outlook on their schoolwork.
Give your child opportunities to fail. ‘It’s vital to experience failure, because it’s when we make mistakes that we learn,’ says Edith. Try out a new sport as a family and laugh at yourselves when you slip up, or play board games with an element of chance where your child doesn’t always win.
Talk about mistakes you’ve made yourself, and how you learned from them. Model coping skills when things go wrong for you, rather than getting stressed, upset or angry about your failure.
Reward the effort, not the outcome. ‘Often, parents reward children for achievements such as good exam results, but I think we should give the reward before the grades come out to show that we value the hard work as much as the outcome,’ Edith suggests.
Provide lots of opportunities for your child to take part in non-academic, non-competitive activities such as drawing, baking, cycling and extracurricular clubs like Scouting and Girlguiding.
Set time limits for homework, in consultation with your child’s teacher. ‘Schools should have guidelines about how long homework should take, so make sure your child sticks to them, and divert them into another pleasant activity when the time is up,’ says Edith. ‘If the work isn’t finished to their standards, write a note to the teacher stating how long they spent on it so the “blame” for it not being perfect doesn’t fall on your child.’
Teach them to identify anxious feelings. ‘Anxiety creates sensations in the body, so help your child identify that these are “bullying thoughts” and they don’t have to give in to them,’ Edith says. Doing some physical exercise like going for a walk or bike ride, skipping or playing football in the garden can help to relieve these feelings of anxiety.
Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings. If they’re upset about a dropped mark in a test or a critical comment on a piece of homework, telling them that it doesn’t matter just won’t cut it. Instead, acknowledge the way they’re feeling, and when they’re calm, talk to them about what they can learn from the experience.
Instruct them in some basic cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) strategies. ‘One good technique is to ask your child what they would say to a friend who was struggling with the need for perfection,’ Edith says. ‘This can help them to be kinder to themselves.’
Talk about great achievers in history and society. ‘There are many role models who had to deal with failure on their route to success, and they can be a great encouragement to your child,’ says Edith. Richard Branson, for example, has ADHD, Steve Jobs was dyslexic, and JK Rowling didn't get into Oxford University.
Know when to consider professional help. If your child is showing signs of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression, seek advice from your GP or ask to be put in touch with the school nurse. They can advise you about where to get support for your child.