How to Help Your Perfectionist Child

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Rachael Bottone

Working as a graduate mental health counselor, I heard the same repeated messages from caretakers at the end of their rope:

“I just don’t get him. He’s so lazy sometimes and just won’t complete his homework. If I ask him about homework, he throws a huge fit and becomes angry.”

“I try to calm her down, but she cries inconsolably when she doesn’t understand her assignments. I’ve tried everything to make her relax.”

“It’s so bizarre. Sometimes he spends hours on his homework and gets straight As and other times he refuses to even look at the homework and starts failing.”

For family members immersed in this situation, it is often confusing and frustrating trying to make sense of what feels like unpredictable behavior, especially surrounding academics/homework. However, challenges in school, particularly paired with emotional distress, may be an indicator that your child is suffering from perfectionism.

Research in the field of psychology has identified two different forms of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionism is considered “healthy” perfectionism, promoting self-motivation and creating a sense of drive in children. It differs from maladaptive perfectionism in two ways: the outcome of the assigned task, and what the child tells him/herself when failures occur.

An adaptive perfectionist is likely to achieve tasks and, in the presence of a potential failure, becomes motivated to correct mistakes and try again. This child is prone to self-talk such as, “I’ll get it right next time because I’ll do it differently.” Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, looks very different, and is often reflected in a decline in academic performance and self-esteem.

Maladaptive perfectionists tend to procrastinate, or simply not do tasks, due to a crippling fear of failure. In the face of possible failure, the maladaptive perfectionist will shut down and begin attributing poor performance to shortcomings in who they are as a person. This type of self-talk becomes deeply engrained in the child, becoming the frame of reference for all future performance-oriented tasks.

When I’ve tried to explain maladaptive perfectionism to caregivers, many immediately jump on the guilt wagon, asking, “Where did I go wrong? Did I cause this?” The answer is an ambiguous yes…and no. Research on the root of maladaptive perfectionism remains unclear. Some studies have found genetics and parenting contribute to the development of perfectionism in children, while others argue that inborn temperament and executive functioning of the child are responsible.

Temperament refers to the natural disposition all of us are born with, and executive functioning references each individual’s ability to engage in future-oriented, organized, logical thought processes. Although the piece about genetics and parenting style may feel discouraging, this means that caregivers have an opportunity to intervene and be a positive influence on their child’s perfectionism.

Before making changes, it is helpful to first acknowledge the signs of maladaptive perfectionism, some of which may include:

* Procrastination of assignments or tasks

* Intolerance for failure or criticism

* Emotional distress (anger or sadness), especially surrounding homework or projects

* Statements like, “I’m stupid” or “I’m not good at anything.”

* Sometimes vacillating between studious and organized behavior to apparent “laziness”

As a caregiver, one of the most important functions you have is being a role model. Children with perfectionism benefit from watching adults model things like self-acceptance and a healthy tolerance of mistakes or failure. During conversations about work or other domains of life, children pick up on phrases like, “If I don’t have this report submitted on time, I’m dead!” They internalize this information to equate failure or mistakes with disastrous consequences. It is important to maintain open communication with your children about tolerating and navigating through mistakes.

Similarly, children with maladaptive perfectionism often think in concrete, black-and-white ways, presuming that complete failure or complete achievement are the only options. As caregivers, helping children see the “grey area” in tasks may help them develop a more balanced, realistic perspective on performance-based tasks. An important element of this teaching process involves timing. Moments of high emotionality typically make poor teaching moments, as the child’s emotions become a shout over the whispers of logical thought. Instead, in moments of high distress, validate your child’s concerns, rather than dismissing them with statements such as, “I’m sure you did fine. Don’t stress yourself out.” Once your child has calmed down, take advantage of the opportunity to debrief about the situation. Listen and reflect rather than offer false reassurance.

The most important thing that you, as caregiver, can do in this process is to remain patient. Maladaptive perfectionism involves deeply ingrained thought processes that will take time and practice to undo.

If your child has begun failing courses, missing school, or experiencing chronic emotional distress related to tasks or assignments they are too fearful to attempt because they might actually fail, it may be time to contact a mental health professional. Many professionals work with children on the deeply ingrained thoughts connected to fears of failure through a modality called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This type of therapy looks at the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and assists children in developing more realistic, positive ways of thinking about one’s self. For example, a child who thinks, “If I fail this homework assignment, my teacher will hate me and I won’t graduate,” may begin to feel depressed. These depressed feelings may lead to a decrease in homework completion, reinforcing the original thought. This endless cycle becomes broken through an increased awareness of thoughts and feelings and an effort toward changing the often unrealistic, negative thoughts into positive ones.

As a caregiver, providing a healthy model of self-acceptance and warm understanding of your child’s perspective on matters of concern goes a long way toward navigating childhood perfectionism. In the end, our children should learn to fail with the same degree of grace and self-acceptance as they enjoy success.

Rachael Bottone will be graduating this month with a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Becker College in Leicester. She has provided clinical services to adults, children, and families in at the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College and in the greater Worcester Community. For information about low-cost mental health counseling services available at the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College, contact Dr. Beth Greenberg, clinic director, at 508.373.9752.