How to help your perfectionist childWritten by Danny Huerta
What's inside this article
It can be so easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism. It can feel right and good in the moment as you get affirmation and admiration from others, and you feel more in control of life. Yet, it can lead to feeling emotionally and mentally drained.
What about your kids?
I’ll never forget when a teen woman came to my office. She was longing for control and affirmation but was entangled in her self-inflicted perfectionism. Also, she was struggling with panic attacks, depression and a crippling eating disorder. She was brutally self-critical and had high expectations of herself as she unfairly compared herself to others daily.
Even though this may sound extreme, it provides a picture of what perfectionism can do as it gives an illusion of control. It takes a lot of work to be aware and help untangle ourselves and our children from its life-draining grip.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the fruitless pursuit of becoming someone with no faults or flaws. Perfectionism brings an endless barrage of self-critical and anxious thoughts. Perfectionists pursue almost impossible standards of excellence as they search for affirmation, value, competence and a sense of worth.
There are two general momentums of perfectionism that either lead to healthy or unhealthy developments in children:
Love for others: This one involves high standards of excellence to serve and love others well. These are the dedicated contributors that are learning how to balance high standards with the reality that they are not God. They get to learn about boundaries and letting go of the need to be perfect. They learn to do their best out of love for others while learning that relationship is what leads to a connected and steadfast love, not perfection.
- Thirst for love: This one comes from a childhood where a parent’s love was conditional on a child’s performance or behaviour. They are stuck and not growing because of the need for affirmation. It’s never enough. This perfectionistic momentum is grounded in selfishness, pride and the deep need for approval, affirmation and love from others. This type of perfectionist is a consumer looking to do whatever they need to do to get love and acceptance from other people.
Christian families tend to mix up pursuing perfectionistic behaviours instead of pursuing obedience and surrender. Our imperfections, failures and weaknesses help us rely more and more on a close relationship with Christ. There can be an increased level of gratitude when we realize the imperfections in ourselves that have been forgiven, which leads to a humble and loving heart. Obedience means pursuing a relationship with Christ that learns to love others well, imperfections and all.
How do I know if my child is a perfectionist?
Explore whether you see these things in your child. They are:
- afraid of failing or making mistakes
- constantly disappointed in what they do or create
- critical of themselves and others
- setting very high and unrealistic expectations of themselves and others
- taking a very long time to complete assignments or tasks
- avoiding things that may be too difficult to avoid failing or looking weak
- constantly sad and anxious that they’re not “good enough”
- extreme rule followers to the point of not enjoying normal life
- stuck mentally and emotionally
- defensive or emotional when they feel criticized or that they didn’t meet a certain standard.
The difficulty is that some of these behaviours can be developmentally normal, especially for some personality types, such as the Thinker and Leader personalities. However, there are two main points to consider. The first is if they are setting unrealistically high standards for themselves and/or others to feel a sense of worth or control. Next, the second is if they are impatient and almost intolerant of imperfections in themselves and/or others. If your child is terrified of people seeing or knowing their imperfections or of failing in anything, then they might have signs of perfectionism.
How do children become perfectionists?
Does perfectionism in kids come from their parents? Is it genetic? Does it come from friends or teachers? Is it contagious?
In general, perfectionism comes from a child’s interpretation of how to feel a sense of worth and love. Also, some children are born with genetic predispositions to anxiety that can cause them to be more prone to becoming a perfectionist. But perfectionism generally comes from a child wanting to feel “good enough” or “better than.”
Unhealthy perfectionism in children can come from:
- a lack of love and affirmation from parents combined with standards the child cannot attain
- their perception that they need to perform a certain way to receive love from others
- their embarrassment or discomfort of potentially disappointing others
- their need to be better than everyone else to gain admiration from others.
There is nothing wrong with having high standards and pursuing excellence in work and performance. However, it is the “why” behind the high standards that makes the difference.
Signs of perfectionism in parenting styles
Research suggests that authoritarian parents (all rules with little to no affection or warmth) are more likely to create an environment of perfectionism. In one recent study, researchers discovered that:
- Moms with perfectionistic tendencies tended to create perfectionism in their daughter(s), but not their son(s).
- Dads with perfectionistic tendencies influenced only their son(s) toward perfectionistic tendencies and not their daughters.
- The perfectionist mothers and fathers were more likely to use the authoritarian parenting style.
- If both the mom and dad are permissive (all love and affection with no rules or demands) and/or authoritarian in their parenting style, they are more likely to influence perfectionism in their daughter.
- An authoritative parenting style, which is the combination of the Seven Traits of Effective Parenting, serves as a protective factor, specifically in girls.
Also, keep in mind that “all rules” parenting leads to legalism and your child needing to earn your love. To effectively curb perfectionistic tendencies, it’s essential to bring warmth, affection and sensitivity to the guidance and discipline you bring in your child’s life.
Does social media lead to perfectionism in my child?
Signs and symptoms of perfectionism have been on the rise since the 1980s. In my experience, I do believe that social media has played and continues to play a big role in the rise of perfectionism. Children are in constant comparison through social media. In general, social media highlights what is “amazing” or “important.” And people post videos and content in the hopes of generating attention and likes.
Perfectionism is encouraged through social media when it is all about finding ways to get people to affirm or love you. It is a game that never ends and tends to lead to loneliness, emptiness, depression and anxiety.
On social media, there seems to be a pressure to:
- have a perfect body
- have a prestigious education
- have a certain career path that leads to endless success
- be wealthy
- be the most spiritual
- be the best Christian.
An essential step in helping your child overcome perfectionism on social media is to help them realize that there is no need to try to be someone else. This mentality boils down to having a surrendered heart toward Christ that naturally obeys Christ out of love for him. Each person’s relationship with Christ is unique to their journey as they pursue a relationship with Christ.
In Ephesians 2:10, we are affirmed that we are God’s masterpieces, or his workmanship created to do great things in Christ Jesus. We are designed on purpose and with purpose to love others deeply. From an early age, affirm your children and value the development of their character and uniqueness.
Are girls more prone to perfectionism than boys?
Yes and no. Researchers have found that elementary girls tend to be more susceptible to perfectionism than boys. In general, research points to females across all ages struggling more with perfectionism than males.
I still remember when my daughter’s third-grade teacher approached me and my wife and said, “your daughter seems to be a bit of a perfectionist.” It was eye-opening and important for us to listen to how much of our daughter’s perfectionism came from me and my wife.
I got to meet with my daughter’s wonderful teacher and her aide as we explored some ideas for helping my daughter loosen up and relax in her approach toward flaws and imperfections. We discussed how she could become excited with the possibilities that can be found in imperfections and weaknesses. In all honesty, it helped me pause and reflect. Then, consider how I was doing with my own imperfections and weaknesses.
In my experience, I have found that both boys and girls struggle in their own unique ways with perfectionism. I see more boy athletes struggle with imperfection than girl athletes. And I have noticed more girls struggle with perfectionism in academic settings than boys. However, I do think that perfectionism is a human issue that shows up differently depending on personality, background and experiences.
Also, our children need to watch us intersect in healthy ways with moments of disappointment, failure, insecurity and weakness.
- Pray with your son and/or daughter about their desire for excellence and how to become obedient servants of Christ in their excellence rather than players in the game of perfection.
- Help your child reframe their pursuit of attention towards worshipping God through their gifts, talents and life. This is the way to find contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment, purpose and peacefulness.
What are the three kinds of perfectionists?
Self-oriented (self-inflicted) – This person beats themselves up in their own mind as they pursue unrealistic standards that cannot be attained. They are unable to tolerate personal failure, weakness and/or flaws.
Socially-prescribed (socially-interpreted) – This person believes that other people have them under impossible standards or expectations. However, they perceive that they need to meet the standards so that they can be loved or accepted.
- Other-oriented (others-projected) – This person expects other people to be perfect and without any flaws.
All three can be destructive in their own way. The first step in helping you and your family move toward freedom from the trap of perfectionism is realizing that you’re getting dragged into its game. Christians tend to think that having the illusion of perfection means you’re doing well, but Jesus said he died for sinners. He said that in your weakness, you are made strong in him.
How do I help my child solve perfectionism?
First, look at you and your spouse. Are either of you perfectionists? What’s it like in your home? Make sure love is not dependent on performance in your home. Also, take some time to invest in calm and focused relationship with your child.
Here are just a few things you can begin doing to help your child start pulling away from perfectionism:
- help them see vulnerability, weakness and failure as opportunities to receive love more deeply and genuinely by others
- talk about Jesus dying on the cross and resurrecting as a way to free us from sin and perfectionism and move us into relationship with him that is not conditional on our performance
- being perfect robs a relationship of being able to practice love
- celebrate imperfections as opportunities to truly love one another
- pursue excellence out of love for others.
In general, behaviours are just symptoms of beliefs and perceptions spilling out. Thoughts and emotions dance or work together to form the behaviours we see. Take time to understand what perfectionism is getting for your child.
Are they needing affirmation, control, love, acceptance?
Explore it with them and then discuss healthier ways to get what they are searching for.
You can read these scriptures with your kids:
- Matthew 11:28-30
- 1 Peter 2:9
- Psalm 139:14
- Galatians 2:20
- Romans 15:7
Finally, perfectionism can lead to extreme exhaustion. If you as a mom or dad find yourself in this place and want some help, you can speak with one of our professional counsellors at 1.888.935.2264. For more practical tips and answers to your questions, visit us at FocusOnTheFamily.ca.
Danny Huerta is a licensed counsellor and the director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in the U.S.
© 2023 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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