There is no overnight cure for perfectionism in children, but there are a number of things parents and teachers can do to erode a child’s perfectionist tendencies:
1) Avoid undue emphasis on academic success
Much of the perfectionism seen in children these days is a direct result of the pressure parents put on their kids to excel academically. “Among the young, high pressure for achievement is ipso facto experienced as parental criticism,” says psychologist Hara Estroff-Marano. “Children come to feel that their failure to accomplish will seriously diminish the affection, regard, and esteem with which their parents view them as individuals” (2008, p. 86) In other words, there’s no room for error.
Pushing kids to try hard and do well in school is fine. Encouraging kids to do their best is fine. But when you start to treat academic success as the be-all end-all, or approach it like a winner-takes-all competition, where success or failure in life hinges upon getting 100% on every test and beating everyone else at everything, stuffing one’s credentials with merits so you can become valedictorian and stand out to screeners at Yale or Cambridge, that’s when the desire to excel turns toxic, and kids start to develop perfectionist tendencies (along with a whole host of other psychological problems).
2) Emphasize effort over talent
When you praise children, use compl iments that praise their effort and the work they put in, not their innate talent or skill. For example, instead of saying “You’re brilliant!” say something like “I love the way you thought through that problem.” Instead of praising kids for their talent (“You’re a natural at basketball!”) praise their work (“I bet you playa lot to get so good at basketball”). This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it plays a powerful role in perfectionism.
When kids believe success hinges on natural capabilities, then they’re afraid to fail, since failing makes you a failure. A study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology gave 400 5″‘ graders puzzles to complete: first a difficult puzzle, followed by an easy one. The first group of kids was praised for their intelligence while working on the harder puzzle (“You must be really smart at this”) whereas the other group was praised for their effort (“I see you’re working really hard!”). After both groups failed to complete the difficult puzzles, they were given easier ones. The “smart” group, discouraged by their previous failure and believing success hinges upon innate talent, did 20% worse than they had on the initial round, whereas the kids praised for trying hard did 30% better-a 50% shift in performance. (patz, 2010)
When a child is accustomed to being praised for their innate talent, it breeds perfectionism, because anything less than the best feels like a failure, and therefore an indictment of who they are as a person. This in turn makes them anxious, uptight about their performance, and fearing the prospect of falling short.
3) Watch the way you use criticism and motivation
On a similar note, watch your criticism. Avoid using phrases like ..
- Second place is the first loser
- Failing isn’t an option
- Second best is not good enough
- I expected better from you.
Adults say such things to emphasize the importance of winning, hoping to motivate their children to succeed. Except “motivate” isn’t really the right term to describe this; it’s more like trying to coerce and intimidate children into success. Adults don’t trust a child’s internal motivation, so they apply outside pressure, using negative social leverage in the same way a slave master uses a whip.
Aside from the perfectionist ideals this sends, it’s doubtful such tactics actually work, especially over the long haul. Negative motivation tends to be the least effective type of motivation, and whatever gains it might bring are easily undermined by the deficits that can come from making children uptight about their performance. Elite achievers would typically perform just as well either way, and there are many kids whose performance seriously declines when such negative pressure is applied.
If you’re one of those parents or coaches who is prone to using such phrases, tweak things up a bit so that the message isn’t so focused around winning or losing:
- You’ve put in the work, now go out there and show people what you can do.
- When you’re at your best, there’s nobody who can top you.
- I know what you’re capable of. Go show me.
4) Embrace failure
Failure is often treated like a 4-letter word in our society. This is a shame, because failing is a fundamental part of learning, and a prerequisite to growth. Growth cannot and does not occur unless we are challenged, and challenge goes hand in hand with failure. It is only through struggle that we are able to learn and grow. This isn’t just a figure of speech: studies in neuroscience have shown that failing at a task prompts the brain to pay more attention while releasing chemicals that promote the growth of dendrites between neurons. The same doesn’t happen when we succeed at a task. Put bluntly: failure is how the brain gets better at something.
Children need to understand this, and it is possibly the single most important thing you can do to undermine perfectionism. So you need to embrace this attitude through both your words and your actions:
- When you yourself have goofs, say something like, “Well I just learned something about what not to do.”
- When a child underperforms, don’t treat it like a disaster, but a learning opportunity.
- Talk through failures and unexpected outcomes. Treat them as though they were an instructor. What did you do well? What didn’t work out the way you expected? What can we learn from this?
- Regularly use phrases that promote this concept: “Success isn’t about getting everything right all the time, it’s about how you respond when things go wrong” or “all the greatest people fail. What distinguishes them from all the ordinary people is that they keep trying and working harder to improve.”
5) Let kids see you struggle
Children need to know it’s okay to struggle, and that everyone struggles. The best way to send this message is to adopt an open and non-condemning approach toward your own struggles:
- Don’t try to play superman in front of your kids. If something is hard, vocalize it. Talk about your own failures; Jobs you struggled at, clumsy mistakes you made, lessons you learned through painful experiences.
- Talk about the practice and hard work it takes to become good at something.
- Be honest about the things you’re good at and the things you’re not so good at. The problem with perfectionism isn’t that kids strive to be the best at something, but that kids feel they need to be good at everything they do, and that it’s a disaster if they aren’t. Nobody excels at everything, so make sure kids know this.
Basically, it boils down to showing kids it’s okay to be human, and that to be human is to struggle and make mistakes.
6) Tackling the ideas that feed perfectionism
Perfectionism is interwoven with a number of flawed ideas, whether conscious or subconscious: That love is conditional, that achievement is the only thing that matters in life, that you’re only as good as what you accomplish, that effort was all for not if you don’t finish first. Counter thee ideas by promoting the following messages through your words and actions:
- I care more about you trying hard than I do you coming in first.
- I’ll love you either way, I just nudge you because I want to see you live up to your fullest potential.
- We only learn by failing.
- That was a valuable experience even if it didn’t turn out the way you hoped. It’s fun to win, but it’s equally important to have fun in the things you do.
- People may admire winners, but they respect and relate to humility and down-to-earth people.
- There are other things in I ife besides being the best.
7) Discuss the cost of perfectionism
Perfectionism can come at a significant cost to the perfectionist. Helping kids see this cost may help them battle their compulsive habits. So talk about..
- The things they lose in terms of time and energy trying to perfect things
- The other parts of our lives that go neglected when we’re too focused on perfection in one particular area.
- The opportunities and learning experiences we miss out on when we’re afraid to fail.
8) Help kids see that the world doesn’t implode if things aren’t perfect
Children with compulsive perfectionism need to see that it’s not a disaster if things aren’t perfect. The best way to accomplish this is through exposure therapy in everyday life: intervene to prevent them from tweaking minor, nonessential details. Use your own best judgment about when to utilize this strategy, but when things are good enough and they’re obsessively hung up around perfecting some minor detail, intervene and move them on to something else. Later on talk about how things managed to go okay even though they weren’t able to perfect what they were doing, or how others didn’t even notice the detail they were hung up on.
9) Promote diverse and flexible thinking
Perfectionism is to a significant degree paired with the idea that there’s only one right way to do things, and that any deviation from this script is wrong and cannot be tolerated. You can counter this mindset by promoting flexibility in thinking and diversity in lifestyles. This is a big topic-too broad to adequately cover here –but we discuss these principles in our books The Resilient Mind & Raising Resilient Children. Here are a few quick tips:
- Regularly ask: What are some other ways of looking at things/doing things?
- Read books or watch TV programs that cover diverse lifestyles
- Ask: Would you have done things the same way as I did/he did?
- Most of all, make sure you’re flexible and tolerant of other ways of thinking and doing yourself.
We also have a number of free resources on our site that will help expand children’s perspective and promote flexibility in thought and mind:
The more flexible kids are in their thinking, the less they’ll struggle with the obsessive demands of perfectionism.
Therapy to treat perfectionism in children
If a child’s perfectionism is severe, parents may wonder if therapy is needed. Therapy can be helpful in some cases, especially if a child has internalized compulsive habits or other pathologies that are best treated with cognitive psychology. Yet therapy isn’t always necessary or helpful. Perfectionism is usually driven more by the environment, so your best hope of treating it is to adjust the environment. This involves the family