Perfectionism is a pervasive feature that can impact on a child’s development and wellbeing. In today’s modern world, many children and adolescents can find themselves juggling multiple demands and responsibilities, including schoolwork, friendships, sports and extra-curricular activities. For some children and adolescents with perfectionism, managing these aspects may be overwhelming and can impact on daily life.
With regards to the developmental origins of perfectionism, it appears that several factors such as early childhood experiences, school and parental expectations, peer-related factors and cultural expectations may play a role.
What does perfectionism look like in children and teens?
Perfectionism can look different depending on the individual child, however, common characteristic can include:
- Extremely self-critical thought patterns and setting high standards for themselves.
- Distorted or rigid thinking patterns.
- Anxiety around a perceived failure or when faced with difficult tasks.
- Being easily frustrated when things do not go to plan or when work is not completed “just so”.
- Procrastination and avoidant behaviours.
- Taking a long time to complete tasks.
- Spending large amounts of time on small details.
‘Healthy’ vs. ‘Unhealthy’ Perfectionism
It is important to differentiate between ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism. ‘Healthy’ striving for excellence involves taking pride in accomplishments in an adaptive manner and nurturing self-discipline. On the other hand, ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism involves excessive and unrealistic expectations and high standards placed on oneself, excessive worry about making mistakes and self-critical thought patterns. ‘Unhealthy’ perfectionism is often driven by fear of failure.
How to support children and adolescents with perfectionism
- Focus on efforts rather than accomplishments.
- Be aware of ‘healthy’ (‘growth’ mindset) versus ‘unhealthy’ (‘fixed’ mindset) and encourage and foster ‘growth’ mindset. Shifting from fixed thinking (e.g., “I can’t do this”) to a flexible mindset (e.g., “I can give it a go” “I will try my best”).
- Help children articulate their standards.
- Focus on learning from mistakes.
- Be a role model for your child and demonstrate and model learning from mistakes.
- Recognise and challenge unhelpful thoughts.
If you are concerned that your child’s perfectionism is impacting on daily life or functioning in important areas of life such as school and home, it is recommended that you seek professional assistance. Early intervention may prevent more serious mental health conditions from developing.