Responsible, achievement-oriented and highly principled – this is what a brief portrait of a perfectionist child looks like, explaining why, up to a certain point, this is the kind of child most parents dream of.

These qualities, as analysed by psychologist Dunya Poltorak, are the bright side of a painting that has many shadows, because perfectionism leaves its mark not only on the physical and mental health of children, but also on their performance.

Perfectionism has a genetic component, and its symptoms can be seen even at a young age (3-4 years), says Gordon Flett, professor of psychology at York University, Canada, who has been researching the link between perfectionism and health for decades. Environmental factors also play a part in the story.

The last decades have seen an increasing incidence of perfectionism among children and adolescents, according to a meta-analysis of studies published between 1989 and 2016. Researchers associate this growing trend with the individualism and materialism that are typical of Western culture, with an increasingly competitive academic and professional environment, but also with a generation of parents marked by anxiety and prone to exercise more parental control.

Do you have a perfectionist child?

A true perfectionist’s motivation is a fear of failure and the desire to feel accepted, which is why failures can take on the proportions of a real drama, says therapist Michele Kambolis. The tendency to want to control everything, including their circumstances, can provide a certain short-term relief for a child with perfectionist tendencies, but at the same time it creates a chronic state of discomfort, explains Kambolis.

The perfectionist suffers from chronic procrastination (because the tasks never seem to be perfectly performed) and suffers real breakdowns when things do not go as expected. Seen from the outside, their reactions seem disproportionate, but their inner voice constantly puts them under pressure, telling them that missing perfection means failing as a human being. This constant pressure drains the joy out of even the activities the child is genuinely interested in and makes him reluctant to learn new things, because he knows that he needs time and exercise to achieve the desired performance.

The clues that uncover a child’s perfectionist tendencies are noticeable to a parent’s watchful eye. For example, the child’s tendency to think less of himself, labeling himself as “incompetent” or “good for nothing”, while complaining that he cannot do anything right. The child’s difficulty in overcoming a real or imagined failure is another warning sign. The lack of the child’s ability to enjoy his achievements, because the emphasis always falls on the next victory to be checked, is a worrying and, at the same time, revealing sign of perfectionist tendencies, points out Gordon Flett.

A bill that is difficult to pay

There are at least three dimensions to perfectionism, according to researchers Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett: self-oriented perfectionism (unrealistic expectations and standards set for oneself), perfectionism oriented towards other people, and socially conditioned perfectionism, in which one feels pressured to meet the unrealistic expectations of people who represent an authority (parents, teachers, bosses).

A number of studies conducted among children and young people found links between self-oriented perfectionism and depression, neurosis or unhappiness, as a result of the reactions to stress and failure. Studies have also shown that this dimension of perfectionism positively correlates with suicidal ideation and predicts deepening depression in time.

Perfectionism oriented towards other people has been less analysed, but, according to researchers, socially-conditioned perfectionism seems to be the most destructive form, predisposing a person to major psycho-pathological disorders.

By going through several studies on perfectionism, psychotherapist Azmaira Maker says that its harmful effects include fatigue, insomnia, migraines, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A 2019 study conducted on children aged 8 to 12 years showed that external pressure and negative self-assessment led to irritability, cognitive vulnerability, feelings of worthlessness and a number of psycho-physiological symptoms. On the other hand, the researchers concluded that perfectionism is not always an indicator of psychological maladjustment and that self-oriented perfectionism does not cause psychological problems when the child feels accepted and loved even in the event of failure.

Highlighting that studies have not shown that perfectionism is associated with better academic results, Azmaira Maker concludes that perfectionist students pay a very high cost for some negligible benefits.

Strategies to reduce pressure

Even when it does not seriously affect the child’s well-being, perfectionism still remains a burden that is too heavy to carry, and the parent has a major role in supporting the child to achieve a less fragile balance. Setting unrealistic standards and poor tolerance for failure are vulnerabilities that the child must learn to manage better, applying age-appropriate strategies.

Changing the mindset regarding potential: It often happens that adults have a problematic perspective on skills and talents and subconsciously pass it on to their children. For example, many believe that we are born with a fixed amount of talent or smartness, so they treat failure as a sign of having reached one’s potential, writes Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe that their talents and skills can be developed, so they relate to failures as opportunities to learn more. Children need this way of thinking in order to become resilient and to develop in a healthy manner.

Evaluating the messages we send to children: A perfectionist tends to think in terms of “it’s all or nothing,” and parents can reinforce this flawed pattern of thinking when they emphasise competition or the importance of getting the best possible results. Even the parents’ habit of bragging about their child’s performance, or an attempt to decrease their anxiety before an exam with a reminder of past results (“It will be fine, you’ve always been an A student!”) can create more pressure, needed to maintain a certain level of performance. Parents have the responsibility to create an environment in which the child feels unconditionally loved and in which he learns that the effort to achieve a certain result should matter more than the result itself.

Increasing tolerance towards failure: The child prone to perfectionism tends to delay  the completion of schoolwork for as long as possible, avoids taking chances and has a very low appetite for new activities. These tendencies push her into a very narrow space, where there is not “too much room left for purpose, joy or pleasure”, says psychologist Simon Sherry. In order to help her better manage failure, the child may be encouraged to engage in activities that are unfamiliar to her (a sport she is not very good at) just for fun, thus learning that we can be imperfect and still enjoy life, adds Sherry. Parents themselves should deliberately face uncomfortable situations, admit that they are making mistakes and discuss them honestly, thus presenting an example that is easier for their children to follow.

Setting reasonable standards is an effective strategy for reducing the anxiety of little perfectionists. While some children are difficult to convince to do their homework, perfectionists tend to spend too much time with schoolwork, and in this case parents must set limits, helping the child to take time for relaxing activities as well. Perfectionists develop their self-esteem in close connection with school results and activities, which is why it is essential that parents pass on the notion of identity to them, involving them in various activities that are not competitive.

Relying on the help of a professional can ultimately be the best choice when the child’s perfectionism “interferes with her happiness and development.”

In a society where every age group juggles more demands than the previous generations did, it is natural for parents to want a motivated child who completes everything that he begins without always being pushed from behind.

But perfectionism means less excellence and healthy development and more of a debilitating system of thinking, says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston.

“I am what I manage to achieve” is a philosophy of life that drains out the joy, the creativity, the appetite for novelty and, finally, the zest for life of a child and, to the same extent, that of an adult. That is why it is essential to help children who are lost on the twisted roads of perfectionism to grasp that life does not revolve around perfection, but rather around progress, that (self) compassion can carry us further than (self) criticism, and that we are worth much more than the sum of all our performances.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.