Parenting a perfectionist? Here are tips to recognise signs, understand risks and provide effective support

Some children show signs of perfectionism from early on. Young children might become frustrated and rip up their drawing if it’s not quite right. Older children might avoid or refuse to do homework because they’re afraid to make a mistake. Perfectionism can lead to children feeling overwhelmed, angry and frustrated, or sad and withdrawn. And yet perfectionism isn’t considered all bad in our society. Being called a “perfectionist” can be a compliment – code for being a great worker or student, someone who strives to do their best and makes sure all jobs are done well. These seemingly polarised views reflect the complex nature of perfectionism.

Parenting a perfectionist can present unique challenges. (Freepik)

What is perfectionism?

Researchers often separate perfectionism into two parts: perfectionistic strivings: being determined to meet goals and achieve highly perfectionistic concerns: worry about being able to meet high standards, and self-criticism about performance. While perfectionistic strivings can be positive and lead to high achievement, perfectionistic concerns can lead to a higher chance of children developing eating disorders or anxiety and depression, and having lower academic achievement. Children and adolescents may experience perfectionism in relation to school work, sport, performance in art or music, or in relation to their own body.

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Signs of perfectionistic concerns in children and adolescents may include:

-Children being highly critical of themselves

-Their reactions to mistakes seeming to be an overreaction

-Intense preoccupation and worry over their standards and goals and/or procrastination

-Significant change in performance, for example, lower academic results

-Irritability and negative emotions, stress and feelings of worthlessness

-Social problems with peers and friends, such as bullying and alienating themselves from peers.

A range of genetic, biological and environmental factors influence perfectionism in children. And as a parent, our role is important. While research evidence suggests we can’t successfully increase positive perfectionistic strivings in our children, harsh or controlling parenting can increase negative perfectionistic concerns in children.

Parents who are perfectionistic themselves can also model this to their children. So, how can we walk the line between supporting our child’s interests and helping them to achieve their potential, without pressuring them and increasing the risk of negative outcomes?

Give them space to grow

A great metaphor is the gardener versus the carpenter described by psychology professor Alison Gopnik. Instead of trying to build and shape our children by controlling them and their environment (like a carpenter), parents can embrace the spirit of the gardener – providing lots of space for children to grow in their own direction, and nourishing them with love, respect and trust. We can’t control who they become, so it’s better to sit back, enjoy the ride, and look forward to watching the person they grow into.

However, there is still plenty we can do as parents if our child is showing signs of perfectionism. We can role model to our children how to set realistic goals and be flexible when things change or go wrong, help our children manage stress and negative emotions, and create healthy balance in our family daily routine.

Set realistic goals

People with perfectionistic tendencies will often set unattainable goals. We can support the development of flexibility and realistic goal setting by asking curious questions, for example, “what would you need to do to get one small step closer to this goal?” Identifying upper and lower limits for goals is also helpful.

If your child is fixed on a high score at school, for example, set that as the “upper limit” and then support them to identify a “lower limit” they would find acceptable, even if they are less happy with the outcome. This strategy may take time and practice to widen the gap between the two, but is useful to create flexibility over time.

If a goal is performance-based and the outcome cannot be guaranteed (for example, a sporting competition), encourage your child to set a personal goal they have more control over. We can also have conversations about perfectionism from early on, and explain that everyone makes mistakes. In fact, it’s great to model this to our children – talking about our own mistakes and feelings, to show them that we ourselves are not perfect.

Talk aloud practices can help children to see that we “walk the walk”. For example, if you burn dinner you could reflect: I’m disappointed because I put time and effort into that and it didn’t turn out as I expected. But we all make mistakes. I don’t get things right every time.

Manage stress and negative emotions

Some children and adolescents have a natural tendency towards perfectionism. Rather than trying to control their behaviour, we can provide gentle, loving support. When our child or adolescent becomes frustrated, angry, sad or overwhelmed, we support them best by helping them to name, express and validate all of their emotions. Parents may fear that acknowledging their child’s negative emotions will make the emotions worse, but the opposite is true.

Creating healthy balance

The building blocks of healthy child development are strong loving family relationships, good nutrition, creative play and plenty of physical activity, sleep and rest. Perfectionism is associated with rigidity, and thinking that there is only one correct way to succeed. We can instead encourage flexibility and creativity in children.

Children’s brains grow through play. There is strong research evidence showing that creative, child-led play is associated with higher emotion regulation skills, and a range of cognitive skills, including problem-solving, memory, planning, flexibility and decision-making.

Play isn’t just for young children either – there’s evidence that explorative, creative play of any kind also benefits adolescents and adults. There is also evidence that getting active outdoors in nature can promote children’s coping skills, emotion regulation and cognitive development.

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