The Perfectionist Child

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Most parents want their children to aim for excellence, but there’s a fine line between aspiring to achieve and pursuing perfection. Healthy-minded achievers find joy in the journey to attaining their goals. Perfectionists, on the other hand, place unrealistic demands upon themselves and ardently pursue their ideals to the point of obsession and exhaustion.

Tammi Breunig knows this too well. Somewhere around age 2, her daughter Logan began showing perfectionist tendencies.

“When we would go to the park and there were different jungle gym setups that required a lot of dexterity, Logan would spend an hour or so on one section and wouldn’t move on to anything else until she had mastered it,” says the mother of her now 6-year-old. “At 4, she obsessed over learning to do a headstand. Even today, she loves to draw, but constantly compares herself to professional illustrators. She’ll say, ‘Why can’t I draw like that?’ and throw her work away or withhold it until she thinks it’s good enough to show.”

Logan is one of many children who struggle with perfectionism. The characteristics they display may vary. Some children push themselves fervently; others avoid new activities altogether for fear of failure. Still others vacillate from one extreme to the other. But there are similarities.

“Most perfectionist children aim to please someone in their life and become overly focused on activities or tasks they deem important,” says Alexandra Robbins, author of “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.” “In doing so, they set unreasonable goals for themselves. Then, if personal expectations go unmet, which they often do, they overexaggerate their failures, become hypercritical and often verbally beat themselves up.”

Kimberly Taylor, 28-year education veteran and guidance counselor, agrees. “For many of these children, achievement is closely tied to self-worth, self-esteem and approval. They may think, ‘If I do this well, Mommy will love me more,’ or ‘If I do that right, the teacher will really like me.’ It’s a vicious cycle that robs them of joy and happiness and results in stress, fear and frustration. Left unchecked, it can lead to a host of physical and emotional problems.”

When parents perceive perfectionism tipping the scales in an unhealthy direction, it’s time to intervene. First look at your own expectations. What subliminal or overt messages are you sending to your child?

“If you’re flying off the handle with every little mistake your child makes, he may not understand that blunders are a part of growing and learning,” suggests Taylor. “Communicate perceived failures as opportunities for growth. Let him know that trying his best is not the same as being the best, and that’s OK.”

“I have perfectionist tendencies, so I’m constantly guarding my words and actions,” says Breunig. “I praise Logan’s efforts and remind her she doesn’t have to be perfect or get it right on the first try.”

Teach your child to play by the rules and emphasize character over performance, says Robbins. “If all the kids in the class are cheating and yours isn’t, but he’s getting a C, that’s something to be praised.”

Help set reasonable expectations by breaking down tasks into smaller parts and celebrating accomplishments along the way. Also make sure your child is participating in noncompetitive activities for pure enjoyment.

Above all, affirm your child’s worth. “The most important message you can send your child is, ‘I love you no matter what,'” says Taylor. “This will go miles in helping him learn to love and accept himself for who he is, not what he does.”

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.

Tips to Balance Perfectionism
• Look at your own perfectionist tendencies. Laugh at and learn from your mistakes, and accept yourself when personal expectations go unmet.

• Talk about your own fears and failures. Because children tend to idealize their parents, your child may assume you’ve never made a mistake.

• View past mistakes as learning experiences. Rather than dwelling on mistakes, help your child understand that they are opportunities for growth.

• Teach coping strategies. Help your child reframe situations and talk through various ways to address a problem so he isn’t focused on one solution alone.