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Helping Your Child Overcome Perfectionism

Does your child set impossible standards for himself? Does he become upset when his projects or activities do not work out exactly as planned or are not perfect? He may spend too much time on a simple task and get lost in unimportant details. Perhaps your child doesn’t want to begin a task because of a fear of failure. If these descriptions sound familiar, your child may be a perfectionist. While mild perfectionism is often rewarded by parents and teachers, there needs to be a balance. Children will undoubtedly encounter difficulties and failure, and they need to learn how to adapt and move on.

Children who have perfectionist behaviors often want to control circumstances in order to achieve a result that makes them most comfortable. Sounds pretty typical for everyone—perfectionistic or not, right? So how can we determine if a child’s perfectionism is unhealthy and is interfering with growth and happiness? Children for whom perfectionism is a problem may exhibit some of the following characteristics or behaviors:

  • Self-critical

  • Critical of others

  • Place a great deal of pressure on themselves

  • Anxious about making mistakes

  • Very high expectations

  • Difficulty making decisions

  • Highly sensitive to criticism

  • Believe there is one way to do something

  • Inflexible

When characteristics or behaviors such as the above are pervasive, interrupt everyday living and functioning, and/or stop a child from trying new things or participating in activities, we know it’s a red flag. The desire for a specific outcome causes real anxiety for a child! When a child is able to successfully control the circumstances and/or outcome, he receives temporary relief from his anxiety. This then reinforces the aforementioned maladaptive behaviors. The urge to control returns even stronger, and the cycle continues. Children sometimes need help to break this cycle and set more realistic goals.

What can you, as a parent, do to assist your child in overcoming perfectionism?

  • Let your child see you make mistakes; model positive language

  • Talk to your child about some struggles you have had or currently have

  • Emphasize effort and process rather than outcome

  • Explain your expectations (for school, sports/music performances, homework, etc.)

  • Teach to win AND lose (board games at home is a great way)

  • Provide opportunities for your child to succeed and fail

  • Break your child’s routine sometimes; encourage a “go with the flow” attitude

  • Help your child challenge negative thoughts

  • Stay connected with your child

  • Seek professional counseling for your child if problems continue

The most important thing you can do as a parent is to stay connected with your child! Playing with your child and doing something enjoyable together on a regular basis allows your child to experience your genuine interest and love; this will undoubtedly help him overcome challenges and struggles. As he gets older, listen to him rant about life’s annoyances and stresses. This allows him to know you understand and can give him the confidence to adjust and continue to push forward.

Allison Arbelaez, LCSW provides individual therapy at Art It Out.

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