It’s natural for us to want our children to do well, to excel, even to outshine their peers occasionally. We find ourselves looking on anxiously from the side-lines, our hearts surging with hope as we watch our most precious possession trying their hardest, their faces screwed up in concentrated anguish. We wait, redundant, secretly wishing for the goal, the home run, the main part in the play, the flawless musical recital.
Experiencing these different emotional states is healthy for kids because they become increasingly proficient in a range of life skills. Learning how to be a gracious winner is a crucial skill that too few practice. However, so is learning how to fail and be defeated by a more deserving victor. Here, we explore the concept of perfectionism, specifically, the child perfectionist.
Ask yourself, how often do you actively teach this to your kids?
Sure, many of us capitalize on opportunities as they arise, but is this enough? How regularly do we deliberately support our kids to mess up — that it’s not the win but the learning that matters?
When things go wrong in childhood, there are usually adults present who, at a moment’s notice, can sweep in, rescue the situation, and make everything perfect again. But what happens when the adult stops waiting in the wings?
With mental health issues in both adults and young people on the rise, these coping and resilience skills are more relevant than ever before.
Children exist in a simple transactional world where:
• You behave, perform or complete something skilfully — you get reward, approval or, recognition
• Conversely, you perform poorly — little happens, you receive glib condolences or, worse still, you are punished.
We need to ensure that these transactions are tempered by the presence of a realistic and meaningful third option, where trying your hardest and doing your best, regardless of the outcome, is something to be celebrated.
Understandably, we want our children to be successful in life, so we set them high standards. We issue targets and milestones, both deliberately and unintentionally, as our subconscious wishes leak out. Irrespective of the explicit (or implicit) nature of these, kids feel them; they know that they are there. The impact of such parental desires can be profound and long-lasting.
For some kids, it’s not long before they want everything to go their way, to be perfect. They become a child perfectionist.
There is a fine line to tread between a culture of ‘high standards’ and one of ‘perfectionism.’ We need to be conscious of this and take action when we think things have gone too far.
The Child Perfectionist
So, what does a child perfectionist look like? Well, there are several things to look out for (although this is by no means a comprehensive list):
• Playing ‘safe’ and only engaging in situations they are good at
• Only taking note of their mistakes and overlooking their successes
• Wanting their work to be perfect all of the time
• Anxious questioning, absorbing as much information as possible so that they don’t mess up
• Following instructions obsessively to the letter, not taking risks or using their initiative
• Setting wildly ambitious, uncompromising goals and being very upset if they don’t achieve them
• Showing symptoms of extreme anxiety over tests and exams
• Physical symptoms of stress such as tummy aches, headaches, being tearful, and struggling to sleep.
As with adults, becoming a child perfectionist can be damaging for a young person. Those adult perfectionists amongst us can probably trace these characteristics back to childhood. Perfectionism and anxiety are close bedfellows. Humans are experts at internalizing pressure from our loved ones and wider society to be perfect. Hence early intervention is crucial.
Just like adults, it is ironic that children with perfectionist tendencies will be so preoccupied with being perfect that they will often subconsciously compromise on achievement. They struggle to see the bigger picture and drown in the details.
As adults, we know that it’s much better to be a flexible high achiever who can roll with the punches than a rigid perfectionist who can’t cope with anything other than complete perfection. But we need to make our kids aware of this often. Being a perfectionist makes adults feel like abject failures. Sadly, the same is true of the child perfectionist. It’s impossible to live up to the standards they set themselves.
So, how do we cultivate high standards without crossing the line?
Well, there are lots of ways. This is not about a single ‘big win’ that will suddenly make everything OK. Instead, it’s about adopting a set of behaviors to temper the budding perfectionist and show them that they are, in fact, a beautiful, flawed human just like everyone else.
Encouraging our kids to take on challenges and do things that they are not good at is a great place to start. Allow them to experience failure in a fun and emotionally safe way. As parents, it’s essential that we actively encourage this — particularly the competitive parent. Encourage them to laugh at themselves and show them how to navigate situations where they might feel uncomfortable.
Kids idolize their parents and fully accept that everything they say and do is correct and the ‘right way’ to do things. Hence, modeling behaviors where you aren’t perfect, and you can laugh at yourself is a fundamental strategy. Mess about, have fun, allow yourself to look like a fool, it’s a compelling message for a young person to see. Talk about times when you got things wrong or made mistakes — in both childhood and as an adult.
Focus on the hard work and not the win
A significant part of parenting today focusses on navigating the extra-curricular diaries of our children. While it’s great to give our kids a wide range of experiences and show them all that life has to offer, it’s vitally important that they see this as ‘fun stuff’ and not something that they have to excel at. Focus on the softer skills of playing as part of a team, sportsmanship, communication, effort, and hard work — rather than merely standing on the finish line yelling.
Allow time to play
Simple. Make sure that every week there is an unstructured time where they can play, relax, have friends over, etc. Allow them just ‘to be.’
Do things together
In his fantastic book, The Super Tutor, Joe Norman explores the concept of ‘disinterested learning’ — in other words, learning purely for fun with no other purpose. It’s not about passing an exam or studying a topic from a school syllabus. Norman uses the phrase ‘disinterested learning’ because there is no vested interest; there is nothing to gain from the learning, other than the pleasure of going through the process.
With this in mind, chat with your child about something they would love to learn about — it can be as wild and crazy as they like. Then, work together on it. Revel in the fact that you know nothing about it, laugh, and giggle as you try to learn together and grow from there.
Focus on Feelings
If your child is upset about something, it might be losing a game or not coming top in the test, pay attention, and acknowledge the way that they are feeling. If they are feeling particularly anxious, try to calm them down by diverting their attention to something physical like going to the park or going on a bike ride. Then, when they have calmed down, discuss the experience with them, and explore their feelings in a supportive way. Ask them what they would say to a friend in this situation; this is a great way to help them gain some perspective.
Read our post on How to Be a High Achiever and not a Perfectionist to find out more.
If you are concerned that your child’s perfectionism is beginning to impact negatively on their mental health, seek professional advice, and support. School should a great place to start, or you may choose to seek help via your Doctor or health care professional.