The Perfectionist Child

I have child who is a perfectionist. You would think that a person who sets a high standard is idealistic. If you have a child that is a perfectionist, you will know that it can make life really hard on themselves and often those standing nearby. (Especially us mothers!)

I think there are lots of different ways of being a perfectionist. A perfectionist may need everything looking immaculate. Some perfectionists cannot present any work unless it is flawless. There is the perfectionist that not only sets high standards for themselves, but also gets upset when others do not live up to their lofty ambitions. Or there is a perfectionist who will tick all of the above boxes and then some more!

If you looked at my son’s bookwork, you would have no idea that he is a perfectionist. Its scribble and scrawl would suggest otherwise. But I’m his mother, I know my son. The scribble and scrawl are simply my son’s way of concealing his dismay that he feels he cannot submit perfect work. (And maybe a bit of sloppiness.) My son’s form of perfectionism is to do whatever it takes to hide his imperfections. To draw back and not participate because of the fear of failure. He’s a complex perfectionist and it takes a person with insight to spot his insecurities.

I first recognised this when he was almost three years old. For the past 18 months I had been trying to teach him colours. He showed zero interest. Zero. I knew he could classify. He could name every piece of construction equipment on a job site. I had to learn the difference myself between front end loaders, graders and bob cats in order to answer his many questions. But other forms of classification – letters, numbers, shapes, etc. I got nothing back.

One day I suddenly realised that we had a conversation and during it he correctly named about three different colours. I started listening and realised that he could name his colours correctly. When had it happened? It was then that it dawned on me. I had already picked up that my son did not like failure. He did not want to participate in ‘learning’ when it meant that during the process he would be wrong. If he picked up a blue block and said “Green” and I said, “No, that’s blue”, he took it personally. Yet, when I thought nothing was going in the colour learning department, it was, and when he felt that he had mastered the colour coding we use in this world, without fanfare he started participating.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple to learn all information via this soak, store and later use, method. In life you often need to make mistakes in order to learn. For the perfectionist, this is a challenge.

Here are some ways that I am working with my son to assist him to rise above perfection and to be proud of doing his best.

  • Be Patient and give them the chance to learn in a way that makes them feel safe, but know when you need to draw the line and insist that enough is enough and perfection is not going to be achieved. Give reassurance that “Doing Their Best” really is good enough. Acknowledge that it is not their ideal, don’t dismiss these feelings of frustration and be condescending giving too much praise. Teach them to be comfortable in giving their imperfect best according to time constraints or lack of ability.
  • Give them time and opportunity to practise. Teach your child to pace themselves. If you know that producing a lesser quality end product is going to be stressful for your child, teach them to allow themselves enough time to practise and try to improve their skills or performance before the deadline. This will give them the best chance they can to offer their best. If everything is left to the last minute they will be stressed and it will probably result in tears, tantrums, and general lack of harmony within your household. 
  • Take the pressure off. My son finds academic work difficult. Combine that with a nature prone to perfectionism and there are plenty of opportunities for explosions throughout the day. (Like during homework time.) Learn how to pull back and tone down the environment. Your child’s inner tension is already stretched tight without you increasing the strain. Give them a break, let them go outside and jump on the trampoline and release some of the tension. Don’t let them give up though. Perfectionists like my child find it very easy to walk away and give up when the going gets hard. 
  • Encourage Honesty. My son will lie in order to hide his shortcomings. It’s a slow process, but I’m insisting on honesty and applying consequences for lying. It is far more honourable to be honest about failings rather than lie or disguise inadequacies. 
  • Applaud failure. After talking to my son about how making mistakes helps us to get better at things, I went through a stage of asking him at the end of the day. “What did you do wrong today?” My next question would be, “How will that help you next time?” I would then spend time smiling and making a deal of the fact that he acknowledging failures and more importantly that he was starting to develop an understanding that this was part of the growth process. I applied this to both academic and behavioural life. It was such a happy moment when my son once came to me to admit something he had done wrong, “Mum, I did this….but you know how you say it’s OK to fail, I’ve really learned that….”

Being a perfectionist is not always a bad thing. A person who has high standards often has a drive and desire to achieve and accomplish great things. But it can be crippling and cause other perfectionists to never try anything because the fear of failure is so great. It’s a tricky tightrope to navigate with our perfectionist children. With lots of love, patience and understanding, we can help guide them to a place where they have a desire for high standards but see the traps in perfectionism.
Do you have a child who is a Perfectionist? Does it drive you bananas? What have you found helpful in giving them freedom to be satisfied with their best?

Today I’m linking up with Essentially Jess

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  1. You are so in tune with your son, Caitlin. What an amazing mum you are! Meanwhile, I think I’m very similar to your son :/

  2. Yep I’ve got one. I’ve noticed in particular, if he gets something wrong, he feels awful immediately, and then often shuts down if I can’t drag him out of it quick enough. It’s hard work, but I get it, because I’m exactly the same. 🙂 And I like what you said about now being a perfectionist on everything, because I’m really not. Just in some things, I’m particular. 🙂

  3. Hmmmm not sure if I have a perfectionist…yet….it seems that he is well on his way. Love the ideas in this post and the love and support you have for your little perfectionist xx Josefa #teamIBOT

  4. Yes, I think many of us have areas that we find difficult to let go of. All the best with the hard work of parenting. One thing that has surprised me when parenting children that are like myself is how hard it is! You’d think it would be easier just because we identify with them! In fact, sometimes it’s harder because we need to let go of our own pain!

  5. I have a child who has perfectionist leanings and it means that if he’s not immediately good at something, he won’t keep trying because he hates ‘getting things wrong’ or ‘not winning’. My husband and I have had to be all over this to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. And happily, so far our hard work is paying off! But it’s HARD!!

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