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Perfect Child

Many parents ask me if perfectionism is problematic in kids. It can be. It’s all a matter of adaptiveness. Does perfectionism help or hinder your child? In our fast-paced, information-saturated environments, our children need to continually adapt. But, perfectionism can be the opposite–perfectionism can be rigid and unmoving.

Psychologists typically distinguish between two types of perfectionists: the maladaptive one, and the adaptive one. On paper, these two look alike. They often achieve at the same high level. They have similar high standards. But, one of them is miserable: the maladaptive perfectionist.

The maladaptive perfectionist believes that any less-than-perfect work is unacceptable. They can become preoccupied with details so much that the point of the activity is lost. In fact, perfectionism in this form often interferes with task completion. Maladaptive perfectionists can be excessively devoted to work at the expense of leisure and play. They tend to be inflexible about rules, and come across as rigid and stubborn. Transitions or changes in plans can upset them. Maladaptive perfectionists tend to avoid group work, being unwilling to accept or approve of others’ contributions. Maladaptive perfectionists tend do fine in low-stress situations, but when asked to perform or produce they can become ineffective. Even when achieving at high levels, they tend to be less satisfied with their performance. For example, your child may reason, “I shouldn’t have to work so hard for an A+.” Maladaptive perfectionists have high levels of self-criticism. They are more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide. But, if asked, these kinds of perfectionists often say that perfectionism is their secret to success.

Adaptive perfectionists also have very high self-standards. But their innate desire to excel does not hinge on a flawless performance. These kids recognize that, sometimes, “perfect” can interfere with success. They are able to sacrifice perfectionism when short on resources (i.e., time, money, parent’s help, etc). These children feel good about a job well done.

There is an overlap between perfectionism and giftedness (children with Superior or higher IQ). Perfectionists and gifted children both have: self-discipline, perserverance, and motivation. These “non-intellectual” factors play a signifcant role in IQ; in fact, they’re requisites. To do well on IQ tests and in school, children must be able to:

  • Recognize, alter, and maintain changes in their behaviors and moods in ways that advance their cognitive performance (self-discipline).
  • Mentally tinker with something until getting it right, rather than giving up and saying “I don’t know” (perserverance).
  • Internally drive themselves to do well, feeling innate pleasure at success (motivation).

Perfectionism can actually interfere with IQ. Very smart children usually do very well on tasks that have no time limit. But when required to work quickly without making mistakes, perfectionistic children can buckle under the pressure. They may be paralyzed by performance anxiety. They may refuse to be rushed, losing time in executing items to perfection.

Perfectionism can also interfere with social development. Children who are overly perfectionistic can become easily frustrated with peers who “don’t get it.” They may hold others to their own high standards, and criticize those who they see as falling short.

Perfectionism is not the same as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Children with OCD show strange behaviors and senseless compulsions. They may obsess about contamination, and so wash themselves in a specific, self-prescribed manner. They may obsess about getting things “just right,” and so rearrange objects into symmetry, touch or do things a certain number of times, or feel compelled to tie and retie their shoes. Frequently, children with OCD obsess about numbers. They may talk about “safe” or “unsafe” numbers, and aim to have items or behaviors occur in “safe” numbers. OCD interferes with functioning at home, at school, and in the community. OCD symptoms require lots of time, sometimes up to hours each day.

Normal child development includes phases of obsessions and compulsions. For example, between the ages of 4-8 many children engage in specific rituals (such as having a specific bedtime process, or wanting parents to respond with specific words). Fears about contamination (“cooties”) can also be common. Hoarding (collecting objects) is normal by the age of 7. Between the ages of 7-11, highly rituatlized and rule-bound play is normal. And, into teenage years, it is common for children to develop obessions about activities or idols.

You can help curb your child’s maladaptive perfectionism in several ways:

(1) Help your child alter her self-talk. She may believe that if someone does a task better than her, she is a complete failure. She may believe that you will criticize her if she makes a mistake. She may believe that others’ respect hinges on her being perfect.

(2) Help your child become aware of his perfectionistic tendencies. Show him that taking time to make every detail perfect delays his progress. Show him that messing up can provide opportunities for new ideas.

(3) Help your child see the positives. Point out what she is good at, and what others are good at. Encourage her to praise others’ abilities. Point out that, even if she did not do something perfectly, she may have had a lot of fun while doing it. Explain that spending positive time with school peers can be even more important than producing a flawless group project.

(4) Lead by example. Reassure yourself that your child will indeed make it in this competitive world. Enjoy learning for its own sake. Don’t obsess over standardized test scores. “Mess up” and be OK with it.

(5) Avoid overemphasizing accomplishments. Act on values that lead to greater life satisfaction, such as: spending time as a family, volunteering in your community, having fun, and doing things you’re good at (e.g., gardening, drawing, etc.).

(6) Don’t protect your child from disappointment. If he wants to quit soccer because he is not the best, encourage him to stick it out. If her school project is sloppy, avoid stepping in and doing it for her. Your child is not fragile. He can handle being disappointed. Defeat is a natural consequence, and there is no better teacher. Managing defeat and disappointment are critical skills children need in transitioning to college and workplaces. They’ll be more resilient if you allow them to “fail” as children.

If your child’s perfectionism cannot be altered, consider consulting with a child psychologist.