Children and teens that struggle with perfectionism are:
- Afraid of embarrassment or humiliation
- Chronic procrastinators
- Driven by high standards
- Easily frustrated, impatient and quick to give up
- Highly fearful about making mistakes
- Overly cautious and excessively thorough in tasks (e.g. spending 3 hours on a 20 minute assignment)
- Rigid and stubborn, needing it to do it their way, refusing to accept help
- Risk averse
- Unable to see the shades of grey in situations
Wanting to do your best and trying hard to reach important goals are wonderful characteristics. However, children with perfectionism don’t simply want to do their best, they must do their best, and will do so at all costs. To reach a goal, that is often lofty by other’s standards, they are willing to go to extremes such as loosing sleep, skipping meals, alienating friends, and upsetting their families.
Helping your child overcome perfectionism in 5 simple steps
Step 1: Educate about perfectionism
First, talk to your child about perfectionism. Help him/her understand that perfectionism makes us overly critical of others and ourselves. This may make us unhappy and anxious about trying new things, or quick to quit when things aren’t just right. Perfectionism makes it difficult to finish tasks and can be frustrating for everyone in the family. You might use the metaphor that there is a tyrannical boss inside our brain that says things such as: “If you don’t get it perfect, you’re a failure,” or “Disappointing others means you are a terrible person.” The boss makes it hard to learn new things because it takes lots of practice and time to perform well. Trying to be perfect zaps the enjoyment out of a lot of activities and achievements.
Step 2: Teach positive statements
Perfectionistic children and teenagers often have rigid “black-and-white” thinking. Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or a failure. Help your child see the gray areas in-between. For example, something can have a flaw and still be beautiful. Getting a B+ is still a great achievement, especially if you tried your best!
Encourage your child to replace self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more kind and helpful statements. Even if s/he doesn’t believe these statements right away, enough repetition will allow kind and helpful thoughts to replace the old, negative perfection.
Some examples of helpful statements:
- “Nobody’s perfect”
- “All I can do is my best”
- “Even if I mess up, my family will always love me and my friends will stick by me”
- “Believing in myself -- even when I’m making mistakes -- will help me do better”
- “It's not failure that matters, it's what we do with it that counts”
Have your child say these statements out loud whenever s/he starts to be self-critical or upset about not doing something perfectly. Encourage your youth to write out these statements on index cards and post them around his/her bedroom. As the parent or caregiver you can also use these statements when you make mistakes to demonstrate how to apply them in real situations.
Step 3: Help build perspective
Perfectionistic children and teens tend to “catastrophize”. Mistakes or imperfections are seen as more terrible than they really are. These youth focus on the negative consequences of failure and assume they will be unable to cope and move on. In most cases, these feared consequences are unlikely and much more drastic than the reality. Understandably, catastrophizing increases anxiety and interferes with performance. Help your child recognize that one mistake does not equal failure, and that one bad performance does not mean that he or she is worthless.
Talk about famous people or characters from books or movies that your child admires who made mistakes or experienced failures, but still bounced back! For example, Oprah Winfrey was told she wasn’t right for TV. Famous basketball player Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team when he first tried out. You can also use examples from your life or your child’s, to highlight that feared consequences are often not as bad as one believes, and that we are better able to cope than we give our selves credit for.
Step 4: Beat procrastination
Perfectionistic children and teens often cope with their fear of mistakes by procrastinating. Help your child overcome procrastination by encouraging him or her to do the following:
Creating Realistic Schedules. Help your child by breaking down larger tasks into manageable steps. Use calendars to record assignment deadlines and schedule time to study for tests. Remember, the goal is to complete the task, not to make it perfect. Teachers can sometimes help set a fixed time for homework, if your child refuses to stop working after a reasonable amount of time.
Setting Priorities. Perfectionists sometimes have trouble deciding where to devote their energy and effort. Encourage your child to prioritize by deciding which activities deserve maximum energy and which require less. Let him/her know it’s okay not to give 100% to every task or activity.
Gaining Balance. Perfectionists tend to lead narrow lives because it’s very difficult to be very good at a lot of things. The goal should be to not invest more effort than is necessary to do a “good enough” job. This will allow more time to enjoy with friends and on other activities and hobbies – which are also important.
Step 5: Encourage freedom
Providing opportunities for your child to be flexible, make mistakes and take risks gives him/her a chance to be truly free to enjoy childhood and adolescence. Childhood is sometimes overlooked in the rush to grow up. Encourage your child to enjoy being a kid. Dare your child to spend less time on homework and more time playing tag for the over-studious perfectionist, or to leave his/her room messy for the neat-nick. Only when we are free can we truly be alive.