Children With Perfectionism

Perfectionism can interfere significantly in the lives of children, particularly in the academic domain. There are several signs that your child may suffer from perfectionism. First, if your child takes much longer than normal with homework assignments, perfectionism could be at play. How long homework “should” take may be difficult to gauge, so it can be helpful to check in with teachers or with other children’s parents. Second, if your child becomes unreasonably upset by a low grade, this could be an indication of perfectionism. Typically, children with perfectionism have excessively high expectations with regard to grades, so often grades that others may perceive to be acceptable (low As or Bs) are deemed a catastrophe by perfectionistic children. Third, if your child has a difficult time starting work or tends to procrastinate, this also may be a sign of perfectionism. Perfectionists can have difficulty starting tasks, due to thinking that the work will take a very long time to perfect. A perfectionistic child can be mislabeled as “lazy,” when really the child cannot start a task due to feeling overwhelmed with the demands of the task and needing to be perfect.

If you have identified that your child may be a perfectionist, it is important to get help sooner rather than later, because perfectionistic beliefs only become more entrenched over time. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment for children who struggle with perfectionism. In this treatment, your child will learn to challenge unreasonable beliefs and expectations about grades and performance. Your child will be encouraged to think more flexibly and not to adhere to such black and white standards for him/herself. CBT also involves exposure therapy in which your child will be asked to take risks and do things imperfectly, at a gradual pace. For example, your child may choose to purposefully hand in a homework assignment with an incorrect answer, or turn in an assignment that does not feel adequately edited, until these tasks become less anxiety-provoking.

If you identify that your child has perfectionism, it is important not to reinforce perfectionistic standards for your child. Sometimes parents have to work on their own standards of perfectionism in order to best support their children in treatment. It is helpful for parents to model being imperfect and tolerating the accompanying anxiety. Keep in mind that praising effort is very important, but praising a final product can be dangerous if you do not know how much time and effort was spent in the proces