Imagine a child who keeps a perfectly neat desk in class, a super tidy room at home, spends afternoons ensuring their homework is meticulous and correct and who expects the very best of themselves at all times. What could possibly be awry here you ask?
Well, at the Quirky Kid Clinic, we know how important it is to foster the hopes and aspirations of children and awaken and strengthen a desire for children to strive to be their best, however, we know that for some children, this desire can become an all-encompassing, all-consuming striving for flawlessness, which can become a difficult load for children to carry (Hibbard & Walton, 2014).
Perfectionism, characterised by the setting very high, even impossible, standards for oneself and becoming self-critical if these standards are not reached, is a common feature of many of the children we see at our clinic. While it is well established that many children can manage perfectionistic characteristics adaptively to help them stay motivated, organised and on task to meet high personal standards, perfectionism can also lead to high levels of avoidance, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and exaggerated reactions to mistakes, all of which can interfere with a child’s functioning (Gnilka, Ashby & Nobel, 2012). We frequently see perfectionism getting in the way of a child participating in class, being able to complete assignments and homework, having a go at new activities and gaining pleasure from social and sporting activities.
How perfectionism in children starts?
A common question we are asked is where does children’s perfectionism come from? The research is quite mixed when talking about the developmental roots of perfectionism. It appears that a child’s early experiences play a role, such as the messages children receive and hear about success, achievement, and failure. For example, children with highly critical parents and who seem to perceive their parents as expecting them to be perfect, show a greater likelihood of showing perfectionistic traits (Hibbard & Walton, 2014). Additionally, we know the temperament of a child also plays an important role, with children who are highly sensitive and prone to anxiety, becoming more likely to express perfectionism.
Features of perfectionism in children?
One of the hallmark features of children who are perfectionistic is the distorted and rigid ways in which they tend think (Fletcher & Neumeister, 2012). Perfectionistic children commonly think they must adhere to meeting impossibly high standards (eg. “I must get 90% in my exam, I must make sure I am the best in my class”). They may also overgeneralise when they fail (“this bad mark means I’ll never do well”), display black and white thinking (“if I make an error, I will be a complete failure”) and focus on the negatives while discounting the positives (“I messed up every ball in that game, I played terribly”). These distorted thinking patterns act like filters, such that these children tend to see the world quite differently to their peers, honing in on information and experiences that confirm underlying fears that their best efforts will never be good enough and filtering out more positive experiences. This can fuel self-critical beliefs and exacerbate avoidance behaviours as children become more unsure of themselves over time.
So, how can we best support our children who appear to be setting impossibly high standards for themselves?
- Take care of yourself: Setting high standards for ourselves, whether it be in our parenting, career or sporting achievements can have a multitude of benefits for children, however, be mindful of the pitfalls. Are we constantly frustrated? are we constantly comparing rather than focusing on our unique capabilities? are we avoiding things for fear of failure? Children learn greatly about developing resilience, perseverance, enjoyment of a challenge and their own strengths and weaknesses from watching us as parents set goals, shift the goal posts and cope when things don’t quite go to plan. Showing your children a ‘have a go’ attitude and the enjoyment and learning that it brings will help them navigate and cope with their own challenges in life (Greblo & Bratko, 2014).
- Support High Achievers early on: It is important to support high achiever early on with the right messages, instructions and education. With this in mind, The Quirky Kid Clinic has published a unique online program called Power Up: Using Performance Psychology to do your best. This rich and engaging online program covers key areas of performance to assist children and young people aged 10 to 16 to perform at their best. See http://powerup.quirkykid.com.au
- Seek additional assistance from your school counsellor or psychologist: There can be times when perfectionism can really get in the way of your child’s ability to function at school and home. If your child is avoiding things for a fear of failure or making a mistake and is showing exaggerated reactions and changes which may signal anxiety or depression, it is recommended you seek further opinion from your school counsellor or psychologist.
- Focus on coping skills: Help your child develop positive coping strategies for managing their fears and worries about achievement. Two practical strategies to help your child are breaking down goals and developing a problem solving approach (Gnilka et al., 2012). Often, children avoid tasks like homework or writing in their books, speaking out in front of classmates and playing in team sports because the task at hand appears so daunting and thus is avoided altogether. Help your child break their goals down into more achievable goals, like completing smaller amounts of homework at more regular intervals for example. Helping children problem solve is also important. We know problem solving capabilities are learnt, and, important to the development of children’s resilience-skills. Help children define the ‘problem’ they have and explore and test out possible solutions. Over time, children will be better equipped to confront problems and hurdles with greater flexibility and be better able to generate a range of possible solutions rather than feeling overwhelmed as soon as an issue is presented.
- Challenge distorted and unhelpful thinking styles: One of the central factors which appears to perpetuate the anxiety and avoidance so frequently associated with perfectionistic children is the distorted and unhelpful ways in which they think. What is often frustrating for parents, teachers and coaches, is that perfectionistic children rarely have experiences in which, given attempt and effort, they fail. Helping children develop more helpful and realistic self-talk is the key. Some key questions to ask children are: what evidence do they have for their fear or negative thought being true? What is helpful about their negative thought and what is unhelpful about it? What is the worst that could happen if their feared outcome occurred and how terrible is this on a scale of life events? What could be more realistic and helpful to say to themselves? Challenging children’s cognitive distortions and replacing them with more realistic and helpful self talk is central to children understanding and knowing they are not defined by their mark or mistake and realising how unhelpful rigid patterns of thinking can be (Fletcher & Neumeister, 2012). Great activities are also covered on the Power Up Program
- Set the scene: Set the language in your household and with your child’s school and interest groups, to demonstrate to your child that mistakes are ok, everyone makes them and having your best go is more important than the outcome. Where appropriate, talk openly about your own mistakes and encourage teachers and coaches to do the same. Model making mistakes and your own coping reactions in response. Discuss with your child the positives which come from making mistakes and focus on the positives of situations that were gained despite of, or in light of, a mistake. Encourage enjoyment of activities and make this a focus with your child. Set limits on things which need to be limited, such as how long your child spends on their homework, and use words of encouragement for effort.
- Find a positive role model: Find a healthy role-model for your child, a person who can take an interest in your child’s hobbies and skills and who can strengthen the language of ‘effort over success’ , ‘everyone makes mistakes’ and the ‘have a go’ attitude with your child.
- Foster a ‘growth mindset’: Recently, there was a very good article published in the New Scientist about how to raise successful children and core to the article was the idea that we need to foster a ‘growth mindset’ with our children. In essence, we need to move away from thinking in rigid and fixed ways about our talents, intelligence and personalities (eg. “I am no good at sport”, “I can’t change this”) to a flexible mindset focused on the possibilities of growth, benefits of effort and development through perseverance and support. For our children who are perfectionistic, this can help children move from “I can’t” or “I will never” to “I will have a go”, with this effort and attempt being praised from the sidelines to see these children not only fulfill their potential in their focus area, but also branch out to find meaning and joy in activities and pursuits which aren’t being done perfectly.
- Fletcher, K. & Neumeister, K. (2012). Research on Perfectionism and Achievement Motivation: Implications for Gifted Students. Psychology in the Schools, 49 (7), 668-677.
- Gnilka, P., Ashby, J. & Noble, C. (2012). Multidimensional Perfectionism and Anxiety: Differences Among Individuals With Perfectionism and Tests of a Coping-Mediation Model. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90, 427-436.
- Greblo, Z. & Bratko, D. (2014). Parents’ perfectionism and its relation to child rearing behaviours. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 55 (2), 180-185.
- Hibbard, D. & Walton, G. (2014). Exploring the Development of Perfectionism: The Influence of Parenting Style and Gender. Social Behavior and Personality, 42 (2), 269-278.
- New Scientist (2014), March Issue. The Secret of Success by Michael Bond.