Perfectionism is a heavy burden to bear. Here’s how to help your child move away from and manage their perfectionism and to be less hard on themselves.
“She’s such a perfectionist…”
A phrase often said by people who, clearly, are not perfectionists. Said with exasperation and annoyance because, quite frankly, it’s annoying when people want things perfect.
But you know what is worse than others pushing their perfectionist tendencies on you?
Being a perfectionist.
Perfectionism is a heavy heavy burden to bear. It robs of joy, fulfillment, and sense of accomplishment because, quite frankly, it could have been better.
“It looks great!” you say. “No it doesn’t, that line is crooked, see?” he answers.
Perfectionism can start as early as preschool in response to both internal and external expectations. The Parent’s Guide to Raising a Gifted Toddler even goes so far as to say that it can result in an unhappy and unproductive child.
“You are special. There is no one in the whole world exactly like you, and people can like you just the way you are.” Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Here are some symptoms of the Perfectionist Syndrome:
- high levels of anxiety
- relentless self-criticism
- tendency to magnify imperfections (“I’m not good at anything”)
- Excessive criticism of others
- Fear of trying new things (fear of failure)
- Inability to share responsibility (wanting to do everything on their own)
- Feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, and
- Susceptibility to depression and feeling flat (especially after completion of some task).
Generally speaking, there are two types of perfectionists:
- those that work maniacally to achieve their lofty and often unattainable goals, and
- those who never begin their tasks because they are so afraid to fail or do something that isn’t perfect.
Check off critical household, social, and hygiene skills for your child so they’re prepared (not petrified) of growing up!
Ways to help your child move away from unhealthy perfectionism:
My husband is a textbook procrastinating perfectionist and we can see that my firstborn son is very similar. We’ve talked long and hard about how his personality does lend him towards this, but we want to do all we can to help it from becoming a deeply ingrained pattern.
It can be crippling and a hard cycle to break. From this perspective and our research, here is our plan of attack:
1. Separate success from being “good” or “bad”
When a child does something successfully, there’s a tendency to say “good boy, well done!” so enthusiastically that your child begins to associate being “good” with doing things well.
It’s hard at first, I know, but instead of going overboard with generic “good boy” praise when they do something well try acknowledging their successes calmly, kindly, and with specific praise like…
“I’m so proud of you for tying your shoes by yourself. It took some practice, but you did it.“
Want to help develop your child’s strengths Use these cards to dive into the character qualities and how your child does – and can in the future = exhibit them in their own life.Learn More
2. Focus on learning not performance.
Here is is… this is key.
Focus on a learning/growth mindset instead of a performance moment.
If a child feels the goal is how well they perform, then even accomplishing an extremely difficult task (but having a few snafus along the way) is failure.
Why do they do this?
- Because they didn’t perform it perfectly the first time.
On the other hand, if learning is the goal then they are more easily able to feel accomplishment even if they didn’t get it right.
- Because they learned something along the way and can do it better the next time round.
3. Teach persistence.
Children who are “paralyzed perfectionists” tend to want to give up at the first sign they can’t do something perfectly.
The truth is, they’d rather not do it than find themselves to be a “failure.”
My 3 year old, the one with perfectionist tendencies, will often try something once, then melodramatically fall down on the floor moaning, “I can’t!”
I calmly stand by and say, “You think you can’t. I’ll stand right here with you as you try again.”
One time it took him A LONG TIME to put on his underwear and I nearly died, but he got it and was genuinely pleased with himself.
I praised his persistence and effort and he now does it on its own.
Encouraging persistence will be tedious for you because it’ll require persistence on your own part. Don’t take back tasks they are scared to perform. You’ll have to be disciplined yourself to stand alongside and encourage them.
4. Link failure to lack of effort, not skill.
Use language in your home that shows you value effort over performance.
Using phrases like:
- I’m proud of your effort
- Well done for trying so hard
- You’re still learning so it’s ok
- With more practice, it will get easier
- Hard work leads to success
- I don’t want you to go back and try again, I want you to keep going forward and learning new ways
Don’t use phrases like:
- That’s awesome, you’re a great…
- That’s good enough
- That won’t work
- You might be able to…
- Look at how well your brother is doing
Explain then reinforce that success is often a result of many hours, days, weeks, and years of effort. That success is never a given and it’s effort that counts.
Emotions are a H U G E part of a young child’s life. These “I Am Feeling” cards will reduce tantrums, meltdowns, and help your little one learn emotional awareness.Learn More
5. Give unconditional love.
Children, particularly gifted kids, may feel their worth and belonging in the family is tied to their performance or their intelligence.
Make sure your child knows they are loved because of their position in the family, not based on their performance.
Encourage them by telling them traits and characteristics you love about them, about who they are, not what they do. To help them with their perfectionistic mindset, separate what they do from who they are.
6. Push them out of their comfort zone regularly.
A child who is a perfectionist will likely only want to put their efforts towards things they feel they can excel at.
Fear of failure stops them from trying new things, and they forge a very small world where they feel safe. (Safe meaning they are not likely to fail.)
By regularly pushing them into new situations, new environments, and giving them new experiences you are – little by little – enlarging their world.
Create a safe place to “fail” and have learning be the goal, not performance in these new situations. By regularly pulling your child out of his shell, he’ll be more comfortable in the “unknown” and not as paralyzed.
“Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?”
Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?” Brene Brown
Pull out these fun connecting questions to share some laughs with your precious ones!
Use them at:
- meal times
- car rides
- as a “calm down” trick
- for dinner time conversation
- or any time the day is getting chaotic or
- you need a reset to connect.
Rachel, I LOVE this post and couldn’t agree with it more. I am all about praising effort over supposedly innate traits. Celebrating mistakes. Teaching grit and perseverance. And yes, showing unconditional love no matter what.
Rachel Norman says
Thanks, Nina. Am so with you on everything above. SO IMPORTANT!
Thuan was so VERY helpful! I’m raising an almost 4 year old son who won’t even color because he cannot stay perfectly in the lines! All these tips were very applicable! Thank you!! I’ll be following and post a follow up review on my website!
Rachel Norman says
Yes, I also recommend The Temperament God Gave Your Kids because I have a child – melancholic behavior – that is similar and I am constantly trying to get him to understand that “done” is better than “perfect”
I can relate to this! My daughter who is now 7 (and expresses her creativity freely 😅) would only color with ONE color for an entire picture when she was 5. She was so worried about staying in the lines that she couldn’t even relax long enough to pick a different crayon!
All of the tips were so helpful.
Sally Viavada says
Thank you! How do I sign up for the free email series on perfectionism? I don’t see the “image to click on below.” Thanks!
Sally Viavada says
Never mind! My computer was just slow =) It popped up and I found the sign up link! Thanks!
Christyn Pedersen says
Thank you for this article! Unfortunately my son gets his perfectionist quality from me and I struggle just as much as he does. This mornings struggle was because he is gifted academically and usually passes his first spelling test during the week and gets challenge words. This week he didn’t pass that test and did not receive the challenge list. It changes his whole demeanor and turns into Eeyore. I’ve tried explaining to him learning is all about trying your best, making mistakes, remembering those mistake and doing it again. I’m not sure how else to do..
Rachel Norman says
Christyn, it’s so hard to get over these perfectionist habits. The good news is that as you make strides for this in your own life your son will naturally begin to catch on. There IS hope!
Well written!! I have found these suggestions to be effective in my home as well! Thank you for sharing your experiences so beautifully. You help so many!
Thank you for this! We are entering into our second year of homeschooling. One of the biggest things I learned about myself during our first year was that I am the type of perfectionist that struggles with starting and can unfortunately be very critical to those around me. 😞 This year I am a better teacher to my children because I will focus on us showing up and being persistent instead of checking off all the boxes. 🥰