Are you raising a perfectionist?
Tips for helping your perfectionist child.
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Does your child take on a task or activity with great gusto and drive only to wind up irritable, upset and giving up halfway through? 

Or not wanting to try new tasks and activities at all? 

Is your child obsessed with rules and structure and easily upset when these rules or structures are interfered with? 

You could be raising a perfectionist!

So what does a perfectionist look like?

These are the signs parents should look out for if they suspect their child is struggling with perfectionism, says Linda Bregsi, who has a Masters in educational psychology with further studies in special needs education:

High expectations, high frustrations

Perfectionists are often very bright and gifted children. Parents therefore expect these children to do well and may be disappointed when they do not perform well. Over time the child may become ‘rigid’ in the ways he/she does things. They may be inflexible and become irritable and frustrated when things do not go their way. This may lead to a meltdown and if it occurs regularly, their child needs help.

Takes ages to complete anything

The perfectionist child often procrastinates as they wish to do their assignments to perfection. They get caught up in unimportant detail which can be exhausting. They may take a long time completing a task as they frequently start over, throwing paper after paper away and using an eraser excessively. 

Very competitive

The perfectionist may feel insecure about his/her abilities and constantly compares themselves with others. It is often a struggle for these children to socialise as they may be unwilling to be with other children who they believe are better than them. Their peers may also become irritable when constantly compared and questioned over their results and avoid and reject the child. This often leads to a child feeling isolated and alone, feeling rejected by his/her peer group. 

All or nothing

Very often perfectionist children are unable to know how to maintain a healthy balance in their everyday activities. They feel like a failure and feel disappointed in themselves. They may even become ‘lazy’ and uncaring causing parents to feel confused by their change in behaviour. The neat and tidy child may become lazy and unreliable. These children have an ‘all-or-nothing attitude’ and can let go of their project or goals – leading to unhappiness and even depression. 

Anxious to prove themselves

Perfectionist children often worry about receiving criticism or rejection from peers and family. They become very anxious about letting themselves and family down. They may wrongly believe they are in some way flawed and not good enough. They may then need to try and prove their worth by setting unrealistic academic expectations and being a top student.

Rejecting others who don't work as hard

Older students working with peers may also feel their friends are not working as hard as he/she is and that their work is not on the same standard. They become critical and controlling and this may lead to the child feeling very isolated.

Online resource Anxiety BC offers these signs to look out for in your child or teen:

  • Tendency to become highly anxious, angry or upset about making mistakes;
  • Chronic procrastination and difficulty completing tasks;
  • Easily frustrated and gives up easily;
  • Chronic fear of embarrassment or humiliation;  
  • Overly cautious and thorough in tasks (for example, spending 3 hours on homework that should take 20 minutes);
  • Tries to improve things by rewriting;   
  • Frequent catastrophic reactions or meltdowns when things don’t go perfectly or as expected;  
  • Refusal to try new things and risk making mistakes.

How can we help a perfectionist child?

Linda shares with us some of her tips and strategies she uses to help perfectionists in the classroom and in life:

1. Help to set priorities and focus on what is important 

"Many perfectionistic children are chronic procrastinators and they struggle to complete tasks in an allocated time. In class I would often make use of a timer to help a child finish within a set time. In this way the child learns to manage his/her time more efficiently. I would also help them understand that it is impossible to complete every task without making mistakes."

2. Set reasonable targets

"Help the child reach reasonable expectations as too often these children set unrealistic standards and strive for a goal that they will never, ever achieve. This often leads to a child developing a poor self-esteem as their goals are unobtainable."

3. Less critisicm, more unconditional love

"Refrain from criticism and help the child cope with negative self-appraisal. I would also help parents understand that too much pressure to be perfect is harmful to their child's emotional wellbeing and self-confidence. What we are in fact telling our kids is, 'You are not good enough the way you are'. We should rather focus on giving these children unconditional love and respect.

"I would work at showing these children (and encourage parents to do the same) that my caring and interest had nothing to do with their performance." 

4. Stop comparing them

"I would try and create an environment where competitiveness was discouraged. A safe place where effort was more important than winning or losing. It was also important that parents avoided comparing their children thus instilling sibling rivalry."

5. Give rewards for soft skills

"Finally, I would help the child set goals and give rewards that did not require perfectionism. These children often struggle to socialise appropriately. I would then focus on helping them understand that saying critical things about themselves was harmful to their happiness, as well as to their social development. A reward may simply be a certificate at the end of the week for 'Being a kind and caring friend'."

6. No-one is perfect

"Teaching our children that no-one is perfect and helping them develop the skills to cope when their effort isn't perfect, is such an important life lesson, one that will help them develop into well balanced adults."

In addition, when children learn to accept failure, it allows them to truly be proud of and value their successes and learning the value of hard work

7. Therapy can be helpful

And lastly, children who suffer from extreme perfectionism may also need help from a professional therapist such as an educational psychologist. An educational psychologist would also work with parents in helping them understand and manage their child’s behaviour. 

Linda Bergsi is an educational psychologist in private practise and at Ububele Educational and Psycho-therapy Trust. 

Do you think your child may be a perfectionist? Or perhaps you are and it's affecting the way you parent? You're welcome to send us your comments and stories, and remain anonymous if you wish: mail chatback@parent24.com.

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