I once met a young man who had had many successes in his youth. He was intelligent and outgoing. He had always been the star in high school and had enjoyed the praise he received from others, but something was amiss. As we talked, I discovered that his perfectionism was getting in the way. He was feeling depressed and exhausted. He couldn’t keep up with the demands he had set for himself. He said, “My teachers think I’m gifted. They have no idea how much time I spend on each of my assignments. Now, I have to keep up with those expectations. I don’t think I can do this anymore!” Sometimes parents are unable to recognize the signs and later lament themselves. They wish they had noticed the symptoms so they could help their children. They feel helpless and guilty when they see their children struggle with depression and anxiety.
Research suggests that perfectionism is a genetic predisposition and that the environment and experiences individuals have throughout their lives are key contributors. Parents want their children to succeed, to reach their potential, and most importantly to be happy. Recognizing the telltale signs of unhealthy perfectionism can be the first step in the right direction. Some common signs are below.
- Inflexibility. When Ali was five, she loved paper cutting, but her mom would cringe every time she wanted scissors. Her mom knew a meltdown would follow. Ali would either give up if things didn’t go her way, or get irritated and throw things everywhere out of frustration. If there were changes in her routine, her parents needed to give her enough time and several verbal warnings to avoid a fiasco. They often felt like they were walking on eggshells. When your children show rigidity and regularly experience meltdowns, observe them and keep a log. Rule out hunger, fatigue, physical illness, and environmental issues.
- Isolation. Andrew was a straight-A student, but when he knew the test results were coming out, he refused to go to school. He felt sick and anxious just thinking about his classmates questioning him about his grades. He didn’t want to be made fun of for being “too smart.” Though grades were important to him, his friends and classmates didn’t seem to care about their own grades. He felt different and isolated. On the other hand, there are children who feel insecure about their abilities and are constantly comparing themselves with others. They may be unwilling to be with other children who they believe “are better” than them.
- High standards and criticism. When children and adolescents fail in their endeavors, they wrongly believe they are flawed. They worry about receiving criticism or rejection from peers, and try to compensate for their perceived failure and inadequacies. A while ago, I met a bright young woman who had set unrealistic academic standards for herself. She chose difficult classes because she believed her friends and family expected it from her. She would say, “Everyone knows I’m smart and I cannot disappoint them.” Her unhealthy perfectionism got in the way and she became very anxious. Another young man struggling with unhealthy perfectionism expected his friends and peers to work as hard as he did. He was critical and bossy. He often felt betrayed and disappointed by his friends. This caused him to also feel isolated.
- All-or-nothing thinking. Sometimes parents feel confused when they see their perfect child become lazy and uncaring. They say their child had perfect grades, was very responsible and reliable and even had a perfectly clean room – but that was in the past. They are surprised when they see the extreme changes in their child. In truth, their child can’t hold everything together any longer, and just lets it all go. These children are unable to know how to maintain a healthy balance in their everyday activities. They feel like a failure. Unfortunately, this leads them to depression as they feel disappointed in themselves.
- Procrastination. Children wish to do their assignments to perfection. However, they know this will be exhausting because they often get caught up in unimportant details of the tasks at hand. They choose to delay their projects to avoid anxiety and leave it undone until the last minute. The next day, they feel exhausted and spend the whole day catastrophizing and ruminating about their future. They beat themselves up due to their perceived imperfection in the particular situation.
If your children exhibit the behaviors mentioned above, keep your antennae up. As they get older and they haven’t grown out of some of those behaviors, consult with a professional who is experienced in working with children and understands perfectionism, depression, and anxiety.