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How to deal with a perfectionist child

Child doing chores
Credit: iStock.com/PeopleImages

If your child is easily frustrated when things don’t go to plan, or they get anxious when they’ve failed at achieving a difficult task, then you might have a young perfectionist on your hands.

While some parents might not see being a perfectionist as a disadvantage, some children are very self-critical and it can be upsetting to see them setting high standards for themselves and watching it interfere with their enjoyment of learning or performing.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Danielle Einstein says parents need to recognise the situations in which their child is being a perfectionist, whether it’s at home, school or preschool.

“Your child might be doing some work in front of you and you can see they’re getting quite upset with themselves when they make a mistake. Or they’re having trouble getting started because they want to have the perfect sentence before they write something, or it might involve artwork or just playing with toys,” Dr Einstein says.

“You’ll be able to tell quite quickly if your child is getting frustrated and sets themselves high standards.”

Perfectionism is related to having very high standards and getting upset with yourself when you don’t meet those standards. Dr Einstein says if you recognise that your child is a perfectionist, it’s crucial to communicate with them so they understand what’s going on.

“The first thing to do is be able to chat to your child about it as you see it happening. Give the feeling a label and then, as a parent you can actually talk about how there’s no such thing as a perfect parent, that you’re not a perfect parent and you make mistakes and that’s okay,” Dr Einstein says.

“The child needs to know that making mistakes is part of life and, as we try to learn new skills, it takes a lot of practice and we make mistakes as we perfect our skills.  Making mistakes and practising until we get things right is part of the experience of getting good at things.”

Healthy versus unhealthy perfectionism

Psychologist Dr Rebecca Collie, Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology, UNSW points out the differences between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism.

“Healthy perfectionism is when children strive towards feeling pride in what they’re doing in their accomplishments.  But unhealthy perfectionism is when kids have very high expectations. They tend to worry about making mistakes and they’re over critical of themselves.  So there’s a big difference between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism which can be very problematic,” Dr Collins says.

“If your child’s perfectionism is unhealthy, it’s often driven by a fear of failure and these children often tie their sense of self-worth to success. So, when things are going well it’s fine, but when things aren’t going well they can be very disappointed and critical of themselves.”

The child needs to know that making mistakes is part of life and, as we try to learn new skills, it takes a lot of practice and we make mistakes as we perfect our skills. Making mistakes and practising until we get things right is part of the experience of getting good at things.
Dr Danielle Einstein

When to seek help for your child's perfectionism?

A study into perfectionism and children found a dominant feature of children who are perfectionistic is the distorted and rigid ways in which they tend to think.

The study also revealed perfectionistic children commonly think they must adhere to meeting impossibly high standards. They may overgeneralise when they fail, telling themselves they will ‘never do well.’  They also tend to believe that they should be doing things perfectly so that bad things do not occur and that if they make mistakes the consequences can be dreadful.

So when should parents seek professional help? Dr Einstein says if the child seems to be experiencing depression as a result of their perfectionism, that’s when the parents need to take action.

“If the parent sees that their child is unable to do things because they are stuck with their perfectionism, that’s when it becomes a major problem. Sometimes that actually comes out in the form of procrastination – some perfectionists are so concerned about getting it right they can’t get started,” Dr Einstein says.

“It might not be necessary to take a child who is excessively procrastinating to a psychologist or to label the behaviour, unless you can see that they’re either feeling anxiety, or they’re depressed and it’s messing with their ability to function. But if you feel your child is depressed due to perfectionism, that’s a time to seek help.”  

How parents can help their child

Dr Collie says another way to help your ‘perfectionist child’ is by telling them they’re doing a great job, even if whatever they were attempting wasn’t successful.

“It’s a very complex issue, as it involves a bit of nature versus nurture. What we can do to help kids is by getting them to understand mistakes aren’t a sign of failure. They’re related to learning and improving, and we can use this as a way to get better at things,” Dr Collie says.

“We can also focus on praising young children for their efforts rather than their accomplishments, as this helps them understand that they can control their effort. You can’t always control the outcome, but you can control how hard you work on something.

“We know from the research that healthy perfectionism can be linked to positive outcomes but unhealthy perfectionism, when it’s held down by a fear of failure, can lead to less positive outcomes and that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Dr Collie says if parents are concerned that their child’s perfectionism is interfering with their daily life then that’s a good time to seek professional help.

“If your child is under five, you could start with your local GP but, if the child is in school, it’s a good idea to see the school counsellor at first and take it from there.

“If you feel like your child’s ability to function at home or at day-care, preschool or school, is being affected it might be time to reach out for help and guidance.”