There’s a difference between excellence and perfection. Here’s how you can help your child differentiate and maintain a healthier outlook.
Many people grow up believing perfectionism means you’re driven, that you have ambition, and that your good grades are the access code to whole-life success.
But as parents now, that age-old outlook can turn to daily worry that our kids might inherit the same unhealthy beliefs.
“Many people expect too much of themselves and struggle to cope when they experience failure,” says Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist.
Perfectionism often starts showing up in childhood, which is why it’s important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to know the signs so they can help children learn balance.
“Perfectionism in psychology refers to a broad personality that reflects a person’s concern to be flawless,” explains Pareen Sehat, a registered clinical counselor with Wellbeing Counseling.
“People who believe in perfectionism think that nothing is worthwhile unless it’s perfect,” Sehat says.
Though not a mental disorder but rather a personality trait, in general, there are three distinct types of perfectionism recognized:
A self-oriented perfectionist is someone who feels they need to be ahead of everyone else.
For example, “children who are self-oriented perfectionists are organized and conscientious,” Sehat says. “They set higher standards and goals for themselves in order to achieve productivity and success.”
The only problem: These goals that they set for themselves might be unrealistic. So when they fall short in meeting those goals, despite all the pressure they put on themselves, they decide that they have failed.
An other-oriented perfectionist places expectations of perfection on other people around them.
For example, “a child may expect their friends to be available 24/7, to like the same things as them, and to not have any other friends,” Sadoun says.
This type of perfectionist will judge others very harshly if they make mistakes, even if those people are their parents or best friends.
“This makes it difficult to establish relationships in school and at home,” says Sehat.
Socially prescribed perfectionists
A socially prescribed perfectionist believes that others have incredibly high expectations of them, so they feel intense pressure from society or their loved ones to always be seen as “perfect.”
They can perceive this pressure as coming from their parents, coaches, or teachers.
“[These] children may study harder or practice their hobby more just to be perceived as a hard worker,” says Sadoun.
They’re also incredibly critical of themselves and their performance. “They think they are under great pressure to look or do the best [because] otherwise, people will reject them,” says Sehat.
This, she adds, “can cause low confidence and anxiety in children.”
Some signs that your child could be a perfectionist include:
- is frustrated easily
- spends an unreasonable amount of time on tasks
- low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy
- compares themselves to other children, such as classmates, friends, or siblings, or acquaintences on social media
- has emotional outbursts when they lose, get a bad grade, or things don’t go the way they’d planned
- criticizes or beats themselves up when they receive constructive or negative feedback
- is highly critical of others or holds a grudge when someone lets them down
- procrastinates on a project because they’re afraid they can’t reach the standards someone has set for them
- fears failure
- gets anxious easily
- afraid of trying something new or taking a risk
- doesn’t have many friends or struggles to make new ones
- finds mistakes very upsetting
What perfectionism can look like in kids
If two children play a game with certain rules, a perfectionist might see those rules as absolutes.
“There is no wiggle room [for them],” says Lakiesha Russell, a Wisconsin-area licensed professional counselor. “This will make other children feel like [the perfectionist] isn’t able to play or have fun.”
And the perfectionist child might walk away feeling like making friends is hard or internalize the rejection.
“A perfectionist child might be constantly scribbling or erasing their paper to cover up mistakes with intensity,” says Russell. “The paper might have holes so that the mistake is not only covered up but annihilated.”
A child with perfectionism might also spend several hours on their homework — much longer than other kids or the teacher intended.
“I once coached a child who would spend hours and hours on his homework,” says Sadoun. “He was willing to sacrifice playing football and being with his family in order to make his homework as close to perfect as possible.”
Like the child who spends too much time on their homework, a perfectionist might spend hours practicing the same song to get it right. They might even seem obsessive.
Even once they learn the song and play it for others, they might overanalyze their performance or critique themselves for minor mistakes that no one else noticed.
“During sports, a [perfectionist] child might say something like, ‘I can’t stop until I get it right,’” says Russell.
This child might not acknowledge any improvements as they practice either, leading them to become frustrated.
On social media
On social media, a perfectionist might obsess over their appearance or spend hours planning the perfect selfie or photo angle.
They might also be extremely selective about what — and how — they appear on their social accounts, so much so that it might look like an intense desire to convince their followers that their life is perfect.
This type of perfectionism is most likely to be exhibited by teens, but it could appear sooner as kids get social media accounts earlier and earlier.
“There is a theory that we are all perfectionists as we all crave success,” Sadoun says.
“However,” he continues, “there is a difference between striving to do our best and striving for perfection. With perfectionists, their quest for success overrules everything in life. This might mean they neglect their health or sabotage their relationships in order to achieve a task.”
When this happens — especially in children — it can damage one’s mental and physical health and long-term development.
Some researchers believe adaptive perfectionism — or mild perfectionism — could serve a child well in life because it could motivate them to want to do well and achieve excellence for themselves. It could push them to strive for more and seek out good opportunities.
However, these benefits are attainable only if the child can take feedback to learn and grow, accept and invite new challenges, and understand the difference between excellence and perfection.
In other words: They have to be able to accept that their best is good enough.
For most perfectionists, “your best” is often not good enough, which can pose several problems, including into adulthood.
Perfectionism can lead the child to:
- lose hours of time trying to perfect things
- have low self-esteem
- fall behind in school because they can’t complete assignments on time
- have emotional outbursts
- struggle to adapt to new situations
- develop people-pleasing behavior
- negative self-talk (e.g., they berate themselves as “stupid,” “dumb,” or “pathetic”)
- feel anxious or panicky when they can’t meet their high standards
- lash out at feedback
- have a hard time forming or maintaining relationships or friendships
“Perfectionism gets dangerous when it goes unchecked and develops into an irrational need to have everything a certain way,” explains Sadoun.
This can cause substantial harm to a child’s mental health.
“Perfectionism can be a real danger or a symptom of a mental health disorder when the child ruminates on the negative aspect of not getting something how they want it to be,” says Russell.
Signs that perfectionism is becoming harmful or a mental health disorder include:
- frequent irrational thoughts on failures
- rigid, inflexible routines
- experiences disproportionate reactions over insignificant failures
- inability to overcome setbacks
- symptoms of anxiety or depression
- panic attacks
- refers to suicide or death after not getting a desired outcome for their effort(s)
There are other symptoms of disorders that mirror perfectionism as well:
- Seeming perfectionism in food arrangement, food measurement, or calorie counting could be signs of an eating disorder or obessive-compulsive disorder.
- Traumatic reactivity or a PTSD-related diagnosis may mimic perfectionism when it’s really a child trying to create rituals to self-soothe from ongoing or recent trauma.
If you notice your child is showing signs of perfectionism, there are things you can do to help them find balance and a healthier outlook toward their schoolwork and extracurriculars.
1. Help them recognize what they can manage and cannot control
Not everything in life will go as planned — even if you prepare, study, and work hard. As a parent, you can try to teach your child the difference between what they can change and what they can’t as early as possible.
2. Encourage a pivot toward seeking excellence
Along the same lines, you might try to encourage a slight shift in your child’s outlook. No one is truly perfect. We all make mistakes. What matters more is that we strive toward being excellent through hard work and continuous improvement. What matters most is that you’re heading in the right direction.
3. Be careful with the expectations you place on your child
Children are perceptive, so even if you don’t tell them you’re disappointed in their B-, odds are, they’ll see your true feelings. So try to be realistic with your own expectations for your child, and that, in turn, will help them be more realistic, too.
“As parents, we want our children to be better than us, so being mindful in how we communicate that and being conscious of the pressures we are placing on them to be better than us will go a long way,” explains Russell.
4. Be a role model
Your children won’t just be aware of your expectations of them. They’ll also notice what you expect of yourself.
“As parents, we can tell our children certain things, but they learn a lot through watching us,” explains Russell.
“If you struggle with perfectionism yourself, and it is hindering your day-to-day, your child sees that and models that behavior,” Russell says.
So be careful about how you talk about your own performance at work, your appearance, or your judgments of others.
5. Prioritize balance
If you see your child spending too much time on homework or practice, or having difficulty balancing friendships with schoolwork, this is an opportunity to discuss work-life balance.
You could encourage them to take breaks, spend time with friends and family, and discover new things.
You could also model this behavior during “family time” nights, where you could focus on quality time or fun activities.
6. Call in reinforcement
“If your child’s life is being affected by perfectionism, I would encourage you to take them to a therapist to get to the bottom of it,” says Sadoun.
“When they discuss their issues, you will probably find that their perfectionism is rooted in something else,” he adds. “What appears to be an addiction to success may, in fact, be a trauma response.”
A child therapist can also help your kid develop coping mechanisms and encourage healthier behaviors.
Perfectionism and ambition are not the same things, and while the latter can help children grow up to be happy and successful, the former can lead to harmful mental health impacts. Learning the signs of perfectionism helps you guide your child to finding balance and discovering the difference between striving toward unrealistic goals and a healthy practice of excellence.