It is an excellent sign when your child strives to be good at something. Maybe they’ve started a new hobby or have a passion for a particular subject. In most cases, working hard is an excellent trait. However, this quest for excellence can potentially slide into perfectionism, an unhealthy trait that can seriously damage your child’s mental health.
Perfectionism entails your child setting unrealistic goals for themselves and becoming upset if they do not meet them. They place a lot of pressure on themselves and have an all-or-nothing mindset, viewing themselves as failures if they receive even an A- on a test. Research has shown that perfectionism has increased greatly among children and young adults in recent years, which, left unchecked, can be a risk factor for depression and anxiety.
Types of Perfectionism
Researchers have identified three types of perfectionism:
- Other-oriented perfectionists – Setting high, unrealistic standards for other people.
- Self-oriented perfectionists – Setting high, unrealistic standards for themselves.
- Socially prescribed perfectionists – Believing that other people, such as their parents or coaches, have unrealistic standards for them.
There is also another type of perfectionism known as personal standards perfectionism. This is thought to be a healthier form of perfectionism, as it entails goals being created as motivating factors rather than as strict rules. This form often does not lead to stress and burnout and occurs when a person’s goals motivate and energize them rather than make them feel overwhelmed and anxious.
The three types of perfectionism listed above that researchers focus most heavily on can be particularly harmful to the mental health of children and young adults. Even when young people succeed, they can struggle to enjoy what they have accomplished and not acknowledge their hard work. Many perfectionists think that their achievements come down to good luck and imagine that they will not be able to replicate or maintain their success.
Symptoms of Perfectionism
Although it is not a recognized mental health condition, perfectionism has several symptoms that parents should be aware of:
- High sensitivity to criticism
- Anxiety about failure
- Procrastination with difficult tasks
- Intense self-criticism
- Criticism of other people
- Difficulty prioritizing tasks
- Difficulty completing assignments because the work is never good enough
Children who strive for perfection may also be reluctant to try new things because they feel like a failure if they don’t instantly master a new activity or skill.
Your child may be a perfectionist in several aspects of their lives, such as:
- At school – Your child may take a long time to complete seemingly easy or basic tasks in order to ensure that they are perfect. Alternatively, they may rip up assignments or homework in frustration if they make one mistake.
- In their relationships – Perfectionism may cause your child to place unrealistic standards on their friendships and relationships which are impossible for their loved ones to uphold, thereby straining the relationship.
- Physical appearance – This type of perfectionism can cause your child to spend hours working on their physical appearance and worrying about their clothes, hair, or body. They may obsessively exercise or focus excessively on food to change their appearance, which can lead to an eating disorder.
- Hygiene and health – Perfectionism can cause your child to obsess over their health and hygiene, such as brushing their teeth excessively or showering multiple times a day. They may also focus on their physical health by over-exercising and only eating what they deem as healthy foods, which can lead to an eating disorder such as orthorexia.
Risk Factors for Perfectionism
Several factors may contribute to your child being a perfectionist:
- Academic pressure – Many teenagers and young adults may feel crippling pressure to maintain a high GPA and get perfect test scores. This could be due to striving to get into a good college or feeling they must meet scholarship requirements, which can lead to academic burnout and exhaustion.
- Mental health – Perfectionism is closely linked to mental health conditions such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and eating disorders.
- Parental influence – Having a parent who is a perfectionist can influence children to become perfectionists in the future via learned behaviors or a genetic link. Alternatively, when parents praise their children for perfect test scores and criticize them for making mistakes, children can believe that making mistakes is wrong and that they must succeed at all costs.
- Trauma – Children struggling with trauma may feel as though they must be perfect at all costs or else they will not be accepted or loved.
- Media pressures – The media fixates on some celebrities, athletes, and influencers’ failures while holding others up as perfect. Social media also shows an unrealistic vision of the lives of certain celebrities, consistently portraying them as physically flawless with perfect lives. It also sensationalizes mistakes and portrays even a small misstep as inevitably leading to life-altering failures. These influences can make young adults think that they must be perfect in everything they do or else they are failures.
How to Help
It can be concerning to see signs of perfectionism in your child. It can affect their mental health and, as a parent, you may feel helpless and scared. However, there are several things that you can do to help.
- Praise efforts rather than outcomes – Even if your child gets a perfect score on a test or scores the winning goal in their soccer game, try to avoid praising the results. Instead, praise their efforts, such as training or studying hard. You can also praise them for being kind, helpful, and honest. This shows your child that achievements are not the most important thing in life and that efforts and kindness are equally essential.
- Practice healthy self-talk – It can be easy to be negative about your failures and downfalls, but if you criticize yourself in front of your child, they may pick up on this and begin negatively talking about themselves. However, you can mitigate this by being verbally kind to yourself and showing your child that it is good to be compassionate to yourself.
- Talk about goal-setting – Sit your child down and discuss their goals. If they require perfection, bring up the dangers of setting unrealistic goals and talk about making these goals more realistic. Help them identify what they can and cannot control and how this may influence their plans.
- Teach healthy coping strategies – As a perfectionist, your child may react badly to any perceived failure. They might cry, yell, or isolate themselves in an attempt to cope with their emotions. Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms, such as journaling, going for a walk, or talking to a friend, to help deal with setbacks and failure.
In some circumstances, your child may need professional help. Perfectionism can spiral and create social problems for your child, such as their refusing to see friends or not wanting to have fun because they want to study. They may also have extreme emotional reactions if they don’t get a perfect grade. Contact us if you are concerned for your child’s mental health and want to seek treatment for them.
Having a perfectionist child can be concerning for parents because perfectionism can quickly damage your child’s mental health. Your child may be feeling pressure from many sources, including school and social media, and therefore it is essential that you support them at home and not add to the pressure.
There are several ways to help your child with their perfectionist impulses at home. Teaching them healthy coping strategies and modeling positive self-talk can help them feel more positive about themselves and help them focus on the effort they put into their tasks and activities rather than on the result.
However, perfectionism can be symptomatic of deeper mental health conditions that require professional treatment. Contact your child’s primary physician or a mental health professional to see how they can help your child.
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 Lozano LM, Valor-Segura I, García-Cueto E, Pedrosa I, Llanos A, Lozano L. Relationship between child perfectionism and psychological disorders. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1855. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01855
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