If you were one of the millions of parents forced to tackle homeschooling during the height of the pandemic, there’s a very real chance you witnessed your child struggle with perfectionism. Tantrums sparked by mistakes, self-deprecating humor after praise, the inability to celebrate accomplishments, and shying away from activities — for fear of failure — are just a few examples of behaviors linked to maladaptive perfectionism, the unhealthy and debilitating side of what is often an all-consuming personality trait.
Perfectionism in children is on the rise, and when left unchecked it can grow to be a real problem. Depression, anxiety, burnout, and cardiovascular disease are all closely linked to maladaptive perfectionism, and those who fail to understand this in early life are the ones left most vulnerable.
Addressing perfectionism is vital for our children’s future, but some parents are reluctant to do so. Many are secretly proud of their child’s omnipresent commitment to be the very best. These parents consider their young perfectionist’s high motivation and conscientiousness to be attractive qualities that shouldn’t be tampered with. But it’s important to recognize that perfectionism has both adaptive and maladaptive qualities, and our children will only fulfill their true potential if the latter is controlled.
Thankfully, there are several ways we can help our kids achieve a healthy balance:
Play your part. Perfectionism in children is both inherited and learned. While there’s not much we can do about the perfectionistic genes we may have passed down, we can be mindful of the language we use with our children and how much we pressure them to perform. Parents must be careful not to focus solely on results; instead, they should reward their child’s efforts in achieving them.
Encourage your child to value the experience of creating a project — to view success as more than the finished product. Be open and vocal about your own mistakes, from your adult life and childhood, while initiating conversations on how to deal with anxious thoughts. Ultimately, the more your child connects with your imperfections, the less pressure he or she will feel to be perfect. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Your child will thank you for it.
Get strategic. Children in the middle of a perfectionistic episode are unlikely to respond to your encouragement to consider the situation differently. Phrases like “It looks great to me!” or “You tried your best, and that’s all you can do” only add more fuel to the fire. It’s important to recognize that your child is simply unable to connect with any form of rational reasoning at that moment. So, what should you do?
Rather than trying to fix the situation, experience it together. Tell your young perfectionist you understand, and find ways to calm him or her using soft words or a soothing touch. Afterward, you can use what happened as a teaching moment. Talk about why the episode happened and how your child’s perfectionism presented physically. Ask what your child might do to get out of that situation in the future. All of this helps your child develop a “perfectionism vocabulary” and enhances his or her ability to manage perfectionism’s maladaptive traits successfully.
Introduce self-compassion. Self-compassion moderates the relationship between perfectionism and depression, and it’s a powerful ally to perfectionistic children. Kristin Neff, the leading authority on the subject, suggests that self-compassion is “a practice in which we learn to be a good friend to ourselves when we need it the most.”
Self-compassion’s three components — self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity — teach children to be kinder to themselves as they strive for their very best, while encouraging them to recognize that suffering and imperfection are part of the human experience. Physical exercises, such as breathwork and meditation, are valuable elements of the practice, and mindfulness helps kids stay present, far away from past or future concerns.
While some of these techniques take time to learn and implement, self-compassion is a wonderfully versatile tool for children to have at their disposal. It enables them to manage their perfectionism independently, a skill that carries through to later life.
Allowing adaptive perfectionism to shine
These are just some of the ways to help our kids manage perfectionism successfully, but there are many others. Ultimately, it’s about finding balance and managing maladaptive traits in healthier ways so the adaptive parts can thrive.
Inspiring our children to believe they are enough, irrespective of the results they produce or what others might be achieving, goes a long way in accomplishing this goal. Bolstered feelings of self-worth help our children believe they deserve a kinder journey with their perfectionism, one that empowers them to achieve the success that adaptive perfectionism preordains.
As our kids learn to be kinder to themselves in their endeavors, don’t be afraid to continue to gently push and challenge them. Keep their standards high and horizons far, but keep them safe from potential problems by promoting self-compassion in all that they do. Remember: perfectionists can produce incredible results, and when attained with self-care and kindness, the sky really is the limit.
JULIAN REEVE is a former music director of the Broadway musical Hamilton turned perfectionism contributor, speaker, and author of “Captain Perfection & the Secret of Self-Compassion: A Self-Help Book for the Young Perfectionist.” Visit www.julianreeve.com for more information on self-compassion and other perfectionism solutions.