Better Me

How to Help Your Child Break Out of the Perfectionist Trap

Whether it’s acing their Spanish test, taking the shot on goal that wins the game or nailing Mozart’s Flute Concerto #1, you want your children to try to do their best. That’s normal. “Setting high standards for oneself is part of positive development in children,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ.

But sometimes, some children cross the line into perfectionism. They don’t just set high standards for themselves. They obsess, and their focus on achievement becomes stressful and makes it hard for them to function. They seek praise for their achievements. Unchecked, their perfectionism can spread into different aspects of their lives—a perfectionist student could see those traits spilling over into athletics and other extracurricular activities, for example.

The difference between high standards and perfectionism

High standards are realistic. “They are based on a child’s abilities and backed by their previous levels of achievements,” Dr. Dannaram said. They vary, based on what a child has done in the past. Not meeting high standards is frustrating, but not devastating.

For example, a B student might aim for an A on their next test. If they get a B, they might be disappointed, but they can reflect on why they didn’t achieve their goal. “They accept the result without letting it affect day-to-day aspects of their life,” Dr. Dannaram said.

Children with perfectionist tendencies set high, unrealistic goals that aren’t in line with their abilities. They set themselves up for failure, and when they don’t get the outcome they want, they are so distressed they can’t think about why they couldn’t reach their goal or look for ways to improve. They are preoccupied with goals and results. They struggle to live in the moment. They may hide their emotions. They can develop mental health issues such as:

Is your child at risk for perfectionism?

Like most behavioral issues, there’s a combination of nature and nurture that can lead to perfectionism. Some studies point to a genetic predisposition, and parents of children with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or pervasive developmental disorder should watch for signs of perfectionism or obsessive behavior—it’s more common in children with these conditions.

But social and environmental factors play a role too. For example, parents who have perfectionist tendencies can create an environment that fosters perfectionism in children.

“Parents who have insight into their own problems associated with perfectionism can mindfully create an environment that can steer kids away from developing perfectionism traits,” Dr. Dannaram said.

Here are some strategies you can try:

  • Encourage your child to explore their natural talents with a goal of helping them build healthy self-esteem
  • Teach them about the process of learning
  • Help them set realistic goals
  • Emphasize a focus on efforts, with less emphasis on outcomes
  • Guide them through the process of identifying ways to improve
  • Support them and emphasize their hard work, not the outcome, when they get a bad grade or lose a game—this is a time when they are vulnerable to self-criticism
  • Monitor your own expectations
  • Share your own stories of failure
  • Be patient and repeat these strategies—perfectionism won’t disappear overnight

When to seek professional help for perfectionism

Most of the time, parents can help their children effectively deal with their perfectionist tendencies. But some children could benefit from expert help. Talk to an expert if your child:

  • Avoids family and social interactions so they can achieve their own goals
  • Has repeated insomnia, restlessness, irritability, isolation, or sad mood
  • Cannot enjoy day-to-day activities
  • Develops obsessive-compulsive symptoms
  • Fixates on eating patterns or body weight and appearance

The bottom line

Children who have perfectionist tendencies are prone to a host of mental health issues. But parents can help them develop a healthy focus on high standards. And for children who are struggling, expert care can help. To connect with a behavioral health specialist call Banner Behavioral Health at 1-800-254-4357.

For more parenting information and advice, check out:

Anxiety Behavioral Health Children's Health Parenting