What to do if your child is a perfectionist | K-12 Schools


If a teacher called your child a perfectionist, would you feel a tinge of satisfaction, even pride? Many American parents would, but that’s because pop culture makes it seem like the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism are the same thing. They are not.

True perfectionism, which is surprisingly and increasingly common among school-aged children, is accompanied by a seldom satisfied feeling and chronic concerns about failure, often in the form of “that worry pathological and repetitive”, explains Gordon Flett, professor of psychology and researcher at York University in Canada.

Research links perfectionism in children and adolescents to a range of negative feelings and behaviors, including anxiety, depression, burnout, overthinking, self-criticism, social stress, sadness, anxiety, sleep problems and eating disorders. It can hamper creativity, disrupt concentration, and lead to procrastination and academic avoidance.

The latter is basically “just not making it at all,” says Kathryn Fletcher, co-author of “Perfectionism in School: When Achievement Is Not So Perfect,” but it can also mean choosing a more third-grade report topic. easy or enroll in less rigorous courses in high school. Rather than accepting mistakes as part of the learning process, perfectionist children may fear them so much that they become immobilized by the challenge.

But perfectionism can also seem to work, especially for high-achieving kids. Toby Walker, vice president of BASIS Independent Schools, a national network of pre-K-12 private schools, says, “It may seem counterintuitive, but students who hold themselves to impossible standards find it just as hard to succeed only to fail. For them, he says, “95% [can] felt like a slap in the face.

Even if there is momentary joy in a high score, it can feel a warrant to start over and be accompanied by what Flett calls “misguided courage.” It’s one of the reasons why perfectionism eventually wears down students, leaving them “cognitively drained,” says Flett, who co-wrote the book “Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence” with Paul L. Hewitt. It therefore makes sense that perfectionism is not only psychologically damaging, but also an academically losing strategy, according to a Meta-analysis 2020.

To research by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill shows that perfectionism has been on the rise for decades. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many high school students reported increase in school-related stress.

Josh McKivigan, a behavioral health therapist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, describes an increase in the pandemic in terms of desperation and reports that students say, “I can’t do it the way I want, so I won’t do it all.” just not.

What causes perfectionism in children?

Analysis of research by Flett and Hewitt reveals that between 25% and 32% of adolescents suffer from one or more types of perfectionism. It’s quite complicated, but there is a short version: some children feel the need to be perfect, setting unrealistic standards for themselves (self-focused perfectionism), while some are desperate to seem perfect, using the judgment of others as a barometer (socially prescribed perfectionism and perfectionist self-presentation). What’s pretty common to all types is a strong emotional reaction to perceived failure.

Children not only experience perfectionism in different ways; they get there by different routes, says Flett. Perfectionism often has a lot to do with an individual’s temperament and early life experiences. But continued pressure and criticism from caregivers can play a big role. For instance, a 2017 study found a connection between perfectionist daughters and “controlling fathers who demand perfection.”

At a time of growing economic inequality, which has prompted parents to push and exceed schedules, overparentedg has also been implicated in the development of socially prescribed perfectionism. Experts say parents who model what Flett and Hewitt call “error sensitivity” also predisposes their children to perfectionist thinking. Whether by example, by words or by withdrawal of affection, children who receive the message that they are only worth something when they are above reproach often develop perfectionism.

Since perfectionist behavior can also be a response to trauma and make everything seem out of control, Flett says we should anticipate a pandemic-related increase.

There is also evidence suggesting that Culture and marginalization can increase perfectionist behaviors. J. Luke Wood, professor of education at San Diego State University, says black children are often told they have to work harder than other children because their elders are aware of the tendency of educators to neglect them academically and over-examine them behaviorally.

A study placed perfectionism rates among young, mostly black teens at 41% and another one found that discrimination in seventh grade predicted perfectionism in eighth grade, which predicted depression in ninth grade.

But a student’s background and stereotypes aren’t the only factors at play. Research on “perfectionist climatesand high-performing schools suggest that certain environments become breeding grounds for perfectionism.

One of the hallmarks of perfectionist school climates is coercion intended to enhance performance, including “threats, punishments, rewards, and other power-asserting strategies that…limit autonomy,” according to one paper 2020 by Hill and a colleague. In elementary schools, culprits include clip charts that constantly rate student behavior for all to see, scoreboards that do the same for academic progress, and even “place of honor” displays. as the focal point for exemplary artwork that causes Ramona distress in classic children. book “Beezus and Ramona”.

Another characteristic of these climates? High stakes. Frequently talking about upcoming tests and their consequences can be difficult for children who are worried about their performance, notes Fletcher. And a mindset of “I have to do this for college” versus “Hey, static is cool” makes a big difference, she says. Fletcher indicates to research showing that performance goals, which focus on how a student stacks up against their peers, hinder student learning and motivation. Competitive tasks that pit students against each other also lead to a more perfectionist school climate, as does the emphasis on college admissions.

How parents can help

The most important thing parents can do to lessen perfectionist tendencies is to communicate unconditional positive regard at home: reduce the pressure by ensuring children know they are accepted and valued – they matter – because who they are, not what they do.

In a study by Suniya Luthar and colleagues, sixth-grade students who thought their parents valued achievement more than kindness had more difficulty with grades, classroom behavior, self-esteem, of anxiety and depression. In addition to clarifying your priorities, you can model failure tolerance by admitting what you don’t know and being willing to ask for help. Children can also learn self-compassion.

Flett recommends training children to ask themselves, “What would you say to your best friend?” or at “Talk to your 5 year old”.

Reframing error as essential to growth needs to move beyond the idea that “mistakes are wonderful,” Fletcher says, because perfectionist kids “probably won’t accept that.” Tell them explicitly that “learning involves struggling with new information…and that’s supposed to be very uncomfortable,” she says.

Books and workbooks can convey this message. They can also illustrate the pitfalls of perfectionism. To improve, perfectionist kids “have to be at a point where they see there are costs…and it just isn’t worth it to them,” Flett says. Sometimes therapy can get to the root of that drive to be perfect, but other times it’s best to just “focus on how to adapt when things aren’t perfect,” he says. .

This includes looping in your child’s teacher. Fletcher says that when students procrastinate, educators often have to assume it’s due to laziness or poor time management. Once perfectionism is pointed out, teachers can take a moment to consider if a child thinks “this project…makes me so anxious and overwhelmed that all I do is focus on the mistakes I might make. “. They can also choose their words carefully, knowing that this child is more likely than others to feel watched and judged, Flett says.

A study 2018 found that perfectionist concerns decreased with teacher support. You can ask a teacher to work with a child to set realistic goals. Some educators swear by a form of “exposure therapy” where children are asked to deliberately do less than their best. Flett says students often know perfectionism is bad for them, but think, “If I don’t do this, what will happen will be even worse.” This train of thought can be derailed by doing less than your best and then realizing that the sky hasn’t collapsed.

Next, ask if your child’s teacher uses any practices that might decrease perfectionist behavior in all children. “Mastery goals” and “process praise” focus on improvement and whether students are productively tackling the material, not how they compare to other children. Cooperative learning assignments are another way to decrease comparison.

Flett also recommends attributing failures to ineffective strategies, not personal lack, and offering multiple ways to solve a problem. Her favorite classroom activities include reading stories about famous people who have overcome setbacks and writing letters warning young children about the dangers of perfectionism.

Parents can also advocate for school-wide and district-wide policies. Walker says, “There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to do their best…but what we try to do is make it clear to students that it is okay to not always be 100%. To back that message up with action, he recommends not grading students and not letting “students and parents see grades with one click.”

Schools can change focus so that “it’s not just about celebrating the … valedictorian,” he says: “There must be so many opportunities for students to succeed in schools.


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