How to help a perfectionist child


From a very young age, some children may show signs of perfectionism. When they are very young, they can tear up their drawing if they don’t think it’s completely correct. Later, they may avoid doing their homework, or refuse to do it altogether, for fear of making a mistake.

Perfectionism can lead them to feel overwhelmed, angry and frustrated, or sad and withdrawn. However, in our societies, this character trait is not considered a bad thing. Being called a “perfectionist” is often seen as a compliment, referring to an excellent and hard-working student, or anyone who tries to do their best and ensures that the job is done well.

These seemingly opposing views reflect the complex nature of perfectionism.

Perfectionism: a double-edged character trait

Researchers generally view perfectionism from two perspectives:

  • perfectionist aspirations  : being determined to achieve goals and achieve great things;
  • perfectionist concerns  : worry about the ability to meet high standards, accompanied by self-criticism about performance.

While perfectionistic aspirations can be positive and lead to high achievement, perfectionistic concerns can increase the risk that children will develop eating disorders , anxiety, or depression , and perform lower in school .

Children and adolescents can experience perfectionism in a variety of areas, whether it is schoolwork, sports, artistic or musical performances, or regarding their appearance.

Perfectionism can manifest itself in children and adolescents by the following signs:

A range of genetic, biological and environmental factors influence perfectionism in children. As parents, our role is important. While research findings suggest that we cannot successfully increase perfectionistic aspirations that are positive, a harsh or controlling upbringing may increase negative perfectionistic concerns .

Parents who are perfectionists themselves can also induce this type of attitude in their children.

So how do we find the right balance between supporting our child’s interests and helping them realize their potential, without putting pressure on them and increasing the risk of negative consequences?

Learn to set realistic goals

An excellent metaphor is the gardener versus carpenter metaphor described by psychology professor Alison Gopnik .

Instead of trying to shape their children by controlling them and their environment (like a carpenter), parents can adopt the mind of the gardener – providing them with plenty of space to grow in their own direction, and nourishing them with love, respect and trust.

We can’t control what they become, so it’s best to step back, enjoy this shared adventure, and rejoice in discovering the person they become.

However, there are many things we can do as parents to help our children if they are showing signs of perfectionism. We can show them how to set realistic goals and be flexible when things change or go wrong, help them manage stress and negative emotions, and create a healthy balance and routine in their daily lives.

Lead by example

People with perfectionist tendencies often set goals that are impossible to achieve. We can help them develop more flexibility and set more realistic goals by asking questions like: “What should you do to get one step closer to this goal?” » It is also useful to identify the minimum and maximum that can be achieved. If your child is keen to get a high grade in school, for example, set that as a “maximum target”, then help them identify a “minimum score” that they would consider acceptable, even if they don’t is not satisfied with the result.

This strategy may take time and practice, but it can help the student gradually broaden the range of outcomes they are willing to accept and create flexibility.

If a goal is based on performance and the outcome cannot be guaranteed (for example in the case of a sports competition), encourage your child to set a personal goal over which they have more control.

We can also address the issue of perfectionism from a young age and explain that everyone makes mistakes. In fact, it is good to set an example for our children by talking about our own mistakes and feelings, to show them that we ourselves are not perfect.

Some reactions out loud can help children see that we are “walking the talk.” For example, if you burn dinner, you can express this:

“I’m disappointed because I put in the time and effort and the results didn’t live up to my expectations. But we all make mistakes. I don’t get it right every time. »

Naming emotions

Some children and adolescents have a natural tendency toward perfectionism. Rather than trying to control their behavior, we can provide loving support.

When our child or teenager is frustrated, angry, sad or overwhelmed, we can help them name, express and validate all their emotions.

Parents may worry that acknowledging their child’s negative emotions will make them worse, but the opposite is true.

Encourage creativity

The building blocks of healthy child development are strong, loving family relationships, good nutrition, creative play, and plenty of physical activity, sleep, and rest.

Perfectionism is associated with rigidity and the idea that there is only one way to succeed. Instead, we can encourage flexibility and creativity in children.

Children’s brains develop through play. Much research shows that creative, child-directed play is associated with better emotion regulation and a range of cognitive skills , including problem solving, memory, planning, flexibility and decision-making.

Play isn’t just for young children either – exploratory and creative play of any kind is proven to benefit adolescents and adults as well .

There is also evidence that getting out into nature and moving around can support children’s coping skills, emotion regulation , and cognitive development .

Author Bios: Elizabeth Westrup is Associate Professor in Psychology, Gabriella King is a Associate Research Fellow and Jade Sheen who is Associate Professor, School of Psychology all at Deakin University