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Key Takeaways:

  • Perfectionist children often set unrealistic goals and have an extreme fear of failure. They engage in negative self-talk and may put tasks aside to avoid making mistakes.
  • There are three primary types of perfectionism: other-oriented, self-oriented, and socially prescribed.
  • You can help your child overcome perfectionism by focusing on their efforts instead of their successes, managing your expectations, encouraging healthy self-talk, and focusing on the fun.

If your child is self-critical, easily frustrated, and fearful of failure, they might be a perfectionist. Perfectionism in children can cause significant consequences like mental distress, but parents and teachers can help curb these tendencies by providing support.

If you suspect your child might suffer from perfectionism, learn about the different types, warning signs, and options for help.

What is Perfectionism in Children?

Perfectionism in children occurs when kids set unrealistic goals for themselves. They inflict immense pressure on themselves and engage in negative thinking patterns.

When perfectionist children succeed, they often struggle to enjoy their accomplishments. When they fail, they generalize. For instance, when they fail an exam, they may think, “I’ll never pass my exams. I do horrible at testing.”

Perfectionism vs. Striving for Excellence

The primary difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence is that the former involves setting unrealistic or unattainable standards. Children who strive for excellence focus on continuous improvement and can learn from mistakes gracefully. On the other hand, perfectionist children are often afraid to fail, leading to anxiety, procrastination, and constant dissatisfaction.

Striving for excellence might involve a student setting a goal to consistently improve their grades by studying regularly, seeking help when needed, and aiming for a deep understanding of the subject matter. They acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning process and use them as opportunities to grow.

Perfectionism in the same scenario may manifest as a student obsessing over getting a perfect score on every assignment or exam. They might spend excessive time studying, often at the expense of other activities or their well-being.

perfectionism vs striving for excellence

Types of Perfectionism in Children

According to research, children may identify with three primary types of perfectionism [*]:

  • Other-oriented. Setting unrealistic expectations for other people. An other-oriented perfectionist might believe their parents or teachers have unrealistic expectations for their academic performance.
  • Self-oriented. Setting unrealistic expectations for themselves. A self-oriented perfectionist might believe they are only successful if they achieve straight As in all their classes.
  • Socially prescribed. Believe others have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Socially prescribed perfectionists might feel they’re only successful if others recognize their achievements.

Signs of Perfectionism in Children

Recognizing signs of perfectionism early is imperative to managing their symptoms. If you’re wondering whether your child might be a perfectionist, here’s what you should look out for:

  • Unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others
  • Task paralysis due to a fear of failure
  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • Highly critical of others
  • Extreme self-consciousness and low self-esteem
  • Episodes or meltdowns after receiving criticism
  • Extreme frustration over setbacks
  • Trouble making decisions or prioritizing tasks

How Perfectionism Develops in Children

While there is no single cause for perfectionism, it is often the result of inborn tendencies and environmental factors. A child might develop perfectionism because of the following factors:

  • Parental influence. If parents overly emphasize achievements or only reward flawless outcomes, children might feel pressure to meet these unrealistic standards.
  • Personality traits. Traits like being conscientious, detail-oriented, or having a strong desire to please authority figures might contribute to perfectionistic tendencies.
  • Environmental factors. Pressure from peers, teachers, or societal expectations to excel in academics, sports, or other activities can push children toward perfectionism.

The Impact of Perfectionism on Child Development

Contrary to popular belief, being a perfectionist can increase the likelihood of failure—not success [*]. The risk of failure increases because a chronic fear of failure prevents children from trying new things. This fear of failure can also cause children to retreat socially, leading to difficulties in making and maintaining friendships.

Academically, while striving for excellence can motivate learning, extreme perfectionism might hinder it. Children might avoid challenging tasks for fear of not being perfect or procrastinate due to the pressure of achieving flawless results.

Perfectionist children also develop higher levels of stress because they’re compelled to avoid mistakes. High levels of stress often lead to physical illnesses like constant fatigue, headaches, and insomnia [*].

Because perfectionist children often mask their pain, they are also more likely to develop mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and panic disorders.

How to Help Your Child Overcome Perfectionism

As a parent or teacher, there is a lot you can do to encourage your child to worry less while doing more. Here’s what you can try.

Help your child develop healthy self-esteem

Increase your child’s self-esteem by encouraging them to engage in activities that help them feel good about themselves — not their achievements. Celebrate their efforts—not their successes.

If your child is of kindergarten age, try these self-esteem activities.

Encourage healthy self-talk

A perfectionist child may self-criticize instead of using self-compassion. Encourage them to treat themselves with kindness even when they make mistakes. Practice using sentences like, “I didn’t do well on this activity, but I know I’ll do better next time,” or “I forgot to bring my assignment, but I’ll be more mindful of where I leave my things.”

Model imperfections in a healthy way

Telling your child it’s okay to make mistakes may not have the same impact as being an example of someone who isn’t perfect. If you experience setbacks, get your child involved by asking for their opinion.

For instance, if you burn dinner, ask your child what they think you could improve on or brainstorm alternate recipes.

Practice “Yet” thinking

When your child expresses that they can’t do something, remind them to use the word “yet.” “Yet” thinking reminds them that they have room to improve and that accomplishing their goals requires time, effort, and mistakes.

Manage your expectations

If your child feels they’re under a lot of pressure to achieve perfection, reflect on your expectations. Encourage high standards but not perfection.

Suppose your child’s report card reflects mostly As and a few Bs. Instead of focusing on the Bs, focus on the As, praising them for their hard work.

Focus on the fun

If your children are interested in competitive activities like sports, put emphasis on their enjoyment—not whether they win. Focus on their efforts, being a good sport, and developing team friendships.

When they arrive home from practice, ask them about whether they had fun or to share the best part of their day. Avoid asking about their performance and scores unless they want to discuss them.

Seek professional help

If your child starts demonstrating concerning or unmanageable behavior, it might be time to seek professional help. Be on the lookout for social problems like self-isolation and educational difficulties.

Speak with your child’s primary care physician and discuss possible treatment options.

The Bottom Line

Perfectionism is unhealthy and damaging, especially in young children still developing their self-esteem. While encouraging your child to improve can help them succeed, be sure to set realistic expectations and provide a supportive environment to achieve them.

If your child suffers from perfectionism, use our coping skills worksheets to help them become more in tune with their feelings.

Sources:

  1. Childs, Julian. “Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented, and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism in Employees: Relationships with Burnout and Engagement.” Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 2023.
  2. Lozano L, Inmaculada Valor‐Segura, Eduardo García Cueto, Pedrosa I, Llanos A, Lozano L. “Relationship Between Child Perfectionism and Psychological Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.
  3. Zahra Ofoghi, Mohammad Ali Beshārat. “Perfectionism and physical ill-health.” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2010.