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How to Help Your Child with Perfectionism

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

No one is perfect, but some kids think they should be. This post will help parents spot possible underlying problems and give tips on how to help a child with perfectionism.

Some kids are very hard on themselves. They feel a burden to be perfect and beat themselves up over any little mistake. Often this is not reflective of anything serious, but it is important to take an objective look at your child with perfectionism and identify any possible underlying mental health issues. If you determine that your child’s symptoms are not of clinical significance, there are some things you can do at home to help.

Rule Out Mental Health Concerns

Some symptoms of concern include:

  • more days filled with worry than not
  • persistent, but unfounded, fears
  • feelings of worthlessness more days than not
  • a marked or sudden change in mood, affect or interests
  • perseverating on mistakes or problems to a disabling degree
  • worry that interferes with school or sleep
  • lack of interest in pleasurable things
  • extreme rage in response to frustration
  • self-harm statements or gestures in response to failure

If your child’s symptoms interfere with her everyday functioning, or if the symptoms have persisted for 6 months or more (or have come on in a sudden and severe way), it is advised that you talk with your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a trusted children’s counselor. It is likely time for some outside help.

However, if your child is only demonstrating moderate to mild traits of perfectionism there are some things you can do at home to help ease her of the pressure to be perfect.

Examine your expectations

As parents, we want the very best for our children. We want them to do their very best and be their very best. For some children this can be motivating. But for others, it can be crippling. We need to know our children’s unique traits and tailor our parenting accordingly. If we have expectations that are unrealistic for that particular child, we might be contributing to this tendency toward perfectionism.

Do you accept failure if your child tried their hardest? Is it okay if your child is “just average” in some (or all) areas? Sometimes our pride and unfulfilled dreams from our own childhood can blur the lines between what your child accomplishes and what you would like to accomplish through him. Accept each of your children as unique and special just the way they are. It can be helpful to talk to a friend or someone you trust if this is an area you struggle in.

Examine yourself

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Sometimes we model paralyzing perfectionism and don’t even know it. Do a little self assessment. Ask yourself these questions: Am I too hard on myself? Do I allow myself to make mistakes? Do I make self-deprecating comments? Am I sending a message that perfection is the goal? Am I critical of others in front of my child? All of these things can create a culture of perfectionism in the home. Even if you are not putting any direct pressure on your child, you are creating an atmosphere where mistakes are failures rather than learning opportunities.

Encourage risk

Some kids are cautious by nature. Kids who fear failure can be crippled by it. It is important that you find the right balance between encouraging your child to stretch and pushing her into something that she is not ready for. The more we allow our children to avoid the things they fear, the greater that fear becomes. Try taking baby steps. Instead of singing a solo in front of the whole class, can your child sing with a couple of relatives? Instead of studying for 5 hours for a test, can she study only 3? By asking “what would happen if” questions you can try to help your child gain a better perspective on the area of struggle. For example, you can ask, “What would happen if you didn’t get the part in the school play?” and “What would that mean to you?” Try to help your child see that success or failure does not define him. He is loved no matter what.

Correct less, encourage more

Nit-picking can become a parental habit if you are not careful. Pointing out everything your child does wrong in an attempt to teach him the “right” way to do things can be damaging. Before you correct, consider if the behavior is willful, selfish or simply uninformed. Perfectionistic children need less correction and more encouragement.

Focus on what went right

If your child has an experience with failure, make sure that you emphasize what went right. Don’t point out what she could have done differently. If after some assessment such a conversation is necessary, wait until the sting of failure has worn off. Let her know that effort is more important than results and that growth comes from failure. Here are some stories of famous people who failed and then bounced back.

In the end, you may find that some children are just wired this way. You may need to accept that this is who your child is and lovingly invite her to take risks and encourage her when she fails. You can also spend some time talking about the process of sanctification in a way she can understand. In our next post, we will talk more about how Christian parents can use God’s word and a word picture to help their children understand the concept of being saved but not perfect.

[Photo credit: chilombiano from morguefile.com]

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers individual and parent counseling to residents of Connecticut. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married with a young adult son and a teenage daughter.

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  • […] this behavioral type. As it turns out, she seems to be exhibiting mild traits of ‘Perfectionism‘. I say mild because, despite her frustrations she does pretty well at school and is somewhat […]