Is Your Child a Perfectionist?

Sara-School Phobia

Sara was a first grader who puzzled her teacher and parents. Though she had a teacher who was experienced and well liked by both parents and students, Sara was not happy about going to school. Her school phobia was manifested by frequent headaches and stomachaches. She operated at a low level in all subjects and though she was painstakingly deliberate in her work, it was usually incomplete. When she wrote she appeared tense. She needed constant reassurance by her teacher to engage in or finish any task, and needed reassurance that she was correct, step by step. This was frustrating to her teacher because it took time away from other students.

In addition, Sara was a complete loner. She rarely volunteered information in class, and frequently refused to contribute even when called upon. She seemed “tied up in knots” to the point she became paralyzed both academically and socially.

Mark-Afraid to Try New Things

Mark did not want to try anything new. Tasks needed to be done exactly the same way each time; any change in format confused him even after careful explanation by his teacher. Frequently he would begin an assignment and quit in the middle. Sometimes he would complete an assignment, but fail to hand it in. He always blamed his” failures” on others. For example, the teacher didn’t adequately explain the assignment or the student next to him wouldn’t let him do his work.

Mark’s self-esteem was obviously low. One day he made a sign for his desk that stated “DUMMY SITS HERE.” His behavior frequently disrupted the class. He blurted out inappropriate remarks during class discussion and interfered with other children who were trying to do individual work. He did not feel it was fair that he was always in trouble, yet took no responsibility for his actions.

When tested, Mark scored minimally on standardized group tests, yet scored very high on an individual IQ test.

Steve-Intimidated If He Isn’t the Best

It was very important for Steve to feel that he was the smartest in his class. He demonstrated this in every way possible. He tried to be the first one to finish assignments, and then bragged about his accomplishments. Occasionally he would get very involved in a project (especially if he initiated it) and wouldn’t know when to quit working on it, because it was never “good enough.” He frequently spoke out of turn. When called upon, he talked as long as possible.

When Steve attended a weekly pull-out program for gifted at his school, his attitude changed dramatically. There he became very quiet and hesitated to take any risks, refusing to contribute ideas or work on new projects. He felt very intimidated in this arena where he wasn’t “the best.”

Defining Perfectionism

All of these children have high academic capabilities, but suffer from perfectionism. We often think of perfectionists as those people who work diligently, always staying on task, and produce superior products. They are the students who are awarded the highest marks at school, and are never behavior problems. Unfortunately this is frequently not the case. Many bright children who are perfectionists are consumed by fears, especially fears of social or academic failure. Perfectionism can have a crippling influence when coupled with immaturity and the limited skills of a young child. These children perceive themselves as failures, feeling they have not met either their own expectations (which are often unrealistic) or the expectations of adults.

Perfectionists are often guilty of a variety of misconceptions. They may feel that respect and love from others is conditional upon their performance. They may feel that they must do their best at all times. There is little value in doing things they cannot do well.

When external pressures are exerted upon these supersensitive children, results can be even more acute. External pressures may include any expectation, encouragement, criticism, or pressure to complete tasks on time. They may also include reward systems for perfect, conforming behavior. This is very confusing to teachers and adults, because we normally think of these tactics as positive reinforcers for children. We must be aware, however, that for some children these reinforcers have a negative effect.

How Can Parents Help?

Examine your own competitive style. Model an attitude of staying with a problem for a reasonable amount of time, even if the problem is difficult. Handle competition in a positive manner, and take responsibility for your own shortcomings or lack of effort. If your child already has high expectations of himself, it is important that you do not add to this pressure by your own expectations. Help your young person look for realistic standards. Help your child by keeping things in perspective, taking the long view, being grateful for past successes, and sharing what you’ve learned from failures. Help him gain the courage to try something new such as learning to ride a bike, making breakfast for the family, etc.

If a child perceives that she has failed at something, wait until after the emotional tension is reduced before discussing the matter. This may help avoid defensive behaviors.

Teach admiration as a strategy for handling jealousy. Notice, admire, and communicate admiration to others. This can be accomplished in everyday occurrences within the family. Acknowledge a family member when she treats another in a positive manner. Voice appreciation for the skill used in a particular move someone makes while the family is playing a game together rather than being upset that the person is beating you.

Ultimately, we want to encourage our children to pursue excellence without getting caught in the trappings of perfectionism.

Additional Resources

A list of books and articles on the topic as it relates to gifted children

Article: Perfectionism and the Gifted: What’s Good, What’s Bad?by Mary Ann Swiatek, Ph.D.

Article: Preventing Perfectionism in Children by Joan Franklin Smutny

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