Perfectionism in Children
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Children who have perfectionist tendencies exhibit
a continuum of behaviors. On one end of the spectrum
are children who take pleasure from doing difficult
tasks, setting high standards for themselves, and putting
forth the necessary energy for great achievement. On
the other end of the continuum are those children who
are unable to glean satisfaction from their efforts
due to their preset, unrealistic goals. Since mistakes
are unacceptable, perfectionism provides these students
with little pleasure and much self-reproach.
Perfectionism appears to result from a combination of inborn tendencies
and environmental factors. These can include excessive praise or demands
from parents, teachers or trainers, observation of adults modeling
perfectionist characteristics, and from parental love being conditional
upon the child`s exemplary achievement. Extreme perfectionism has been
linked to performance and social anxiety, eating disorders, migraine
headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and suicide.
When this behavior obstructs growth in the areas of achievement and
social relationships, these children need assistance from educators.
Some characteristics of children who are extreme perfectionists:
• having exceptionally high expectations for themselves;
• being self-critical, self-conscious and easily embarrassed;
• having strong feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence;
• exhibiting persistent anxiety about making mistakes;
• being highly sensitive to criticism;
• procrastinating and avoiding stressful situations or difficult tasks;
• being emotionally guarded and socially inhibited;
• having a tendency to be critical of others;
• exhibiting difficulty making decisions and prioritizing tasks;
• experiencing headaches or other physical ailments when they perform below the expectations of themselves or others.
Gifted children, who are accustomed to excelling, are often perfectionists.
Problems occur if they refuse to attempt a new assignments or do not
complete their work because it may not be done flawlessly. The result
is gifted children who are underachievers. These students are also
susceptible to burn-out if they attempt to display exemplary performance
in every academic discipline (see Gifted Children).
Teachers and/or school counselors may help children who exhibit extreme
perfectionism in the following ways:
1. Admit to making mistakes and model constructive coping skills.
2. Provide a calm, uncluttered, and structured environment.
3. Create opportunities for success that will enhance the student`s
4. Comment on the child`s strengths and accomplishments. Do this privately
when deemed appropriate or write down constructive observations.
5. Avoid comparing students.
6. If possible, reduce the academic pressure on these children by
altering the grading system.
7. Involve them in setting realistic standards for themselves.
8. Have frequent teacher/child meetings that include student evaluation
of his or her work.
9. Use listening and other communication skills (see Effective Communication).
10. Challenge their belief that they are failures when they make a
mistake and provide a more rational evaluation.
11. Give specific praise (see Effective Praise).
12. Help these students understand that it is impossible to complete
every task without making mistakes.
13. Teach them to revise, start again, and learn from their errors.
14. Challenge them to be courageous and to try difficult tasks.
15. Provide support if they perform at a lower level than expected.
16. Provide opportunities for these children to become comfortable
with ambiguous situations.
17. Use terms such as "admirable work" rather than "perfect" or "brilliant."
18. Emphasize the need to change the goal from perfection to completion
for those students who procrastinate.
19. Teach them to prioritize tasks and to break assignments or projects
down into manageable parts.
20. Assign biographies of successful people who overcame failure,
persevered and achieved greatness; for example, Abraham Lincoln, Albert
Einstein, and Helen Keller.
21. Teach the children to develop and use positive "self-talk" (see
22. Help them learn ways to cope with negative self-appraisal or criticism
23. Promote relaxation techniques such as listening to soothing music,
counting backward, walking, participating in a hobby or reading.
24. Teach the steps to problem-solving (See Building Character in
Students) and strategies to deal with the pressure to excel.
25. Ask these students to identify areas of their life that they can
control and those they cannot.
26. Have them examine the advantages and disadvantages of perfectionism
in their lives.
27. Ask the children to keep a journal expressing their thoughts and
28. Help them understand that saying disparaging things about themselves
is detrimental to their well-being, as well as to their social development.
29. Help these students learn how to be more generous in their comments
toward peers, teachers and others.
30. Encourage constructive peer interaction through group work.
Counselors or teachers may assist the parents of these students by
taking the following steps:
1. Stress that their child needs to experience unconditional love
2. Help them understand that too much pressure to be perfect is
detrimental to their child`s emotional well-being and self-confidence;
for example, it says, "You are not good enough the way you are."
3. Support parental self-acceptance of their errors and acceptance
of their child`s mistakes.
4. Encourage them to acknowledge without judgment their child`s negative
emotions such as frustration and anxiety.
5. Stress that high standards are important, but that there is a difference
between perfectionism and excellence.
6. Encourage them to model perseverance, as well as coping skills
when dealing with disappointments.
7. Ask the parents to examine their competitiveness and, when necessary,
to decrease their emphasis on winning.
8. Caution parents not to compare their children and thus instill
rivalry among them.
9. Ask them to explore and agree on realistic goals for the child.
10. Suggest that a parent engage in a journal exchange if their
child has difficulty expressing his or her concerns. For example,
the parent writes a thought in a journal and puts it under the child¹s
pillow. The child responds in writing and puts it under the parent`s
pillow. The exchange of ideas continues. Since what is written is
only discussed if the child is in danger of hurting him or herself
or others, the child feels free to write down his or her deepest
thoughts and fears. This method assists parents in discovering problems
the child may have and serves to reinforce parent-child bonding.
Children who suffer from extreme perfectionism need assistance from
the adults in their lives. They may also need help from a professional
therapist. The goal would be to reduce their perfectionists tendencies
to the point of having them become an asset rather than a liability.