The Perfectionism of Anxiety in Children…
The need for perfection is a big part of anxiety in children. Is it an inborn trait? Is it a message that is actively or unconsciously communicated from parent to child? Helping children to dispel these thoughts is equally as important as identifying the origins, because together, a child can then find relief.
What are the signs of perfectionism in a child?
It’s very easy to interpret perfectionism as ‘behavioral’ because a child may engage in the following, which can be easily perceived as intentional or manipulative:
- Meltdowns when something does not go exactly as expected. This can impact a child academically and socially.
- Working for long periods of time on tasks that should be quick and sometimes mindless (writing the date, his name, etc.)
- Resistance towards trying new foods, activities, or even routines
- Re-writing homework or assignments because it’s not ‘good enough’ or ‘neat enough’
- Not even being able to start an assignment or refusing to work on a task (such as a worksheet with 20 math problems) and freezing (because it’s perceived as too difficult, will take too long, or she won’t get every answer correct)
- Shutting down and not being able to respond to a teacher’s questions. These children are often labeled as being ‘rude’ or ‘disrespectful’ to their teacher or classroom paraprofessional who is trying to be helpful
- Becoming self-demeaning if he achieves anything less than 100% on a quiz; or if the art project does not meet the internal image or standard that he has set up for himself.
How to Help Your Child Un-Do Perfectionistic Standards
“Has there ever been a time when you didn’t need to be perfect?”
Ask your child this question as it will help you figure out when the perfectionistic standards began and where they may have originated. As parents, we may be subtlety (and without any bad intention) began to provide tangible or verbal praise for earning perfect scores. Also take a look at your child’s peer group - is there an element of competition regarding academics? Answers to these questions can help you address the root cause of this unrealistic drive for perfection.
Model Less than Perfect Behavior
When we make mistakes as parents, we often feel badly as we ‘should’ be able to do things correctly and serve as good role models for our children. That is actually the opposite message that we wish to communicate to our children. How many times have your said, “I’m an idiot! I burned the chicken!” Our children hear these phrases and begin to internalize that errors are not okay.
It’s important for us as parents to calmly admit to a mistake and think about how to correct it versus becoming angry, yelling, or making derogatory statements towards ourselves. Our children internalize these statements and use them towards themselves.
Explore the Gray Area
Children who strive for perfection are very often "black and white" thinkers. As parents, we need to create situations that allow for gray area thinking. That is, discuss a situation that may have happened in the news, in town, or with a friend. Discuss with your children all the possible reasons that a particular outcome happened. For example, Mrs. Smith had a car accident. How could that have happened? Maybe someone didn’t see a red light and then crashed into her; maybe she missed a red light and crashed into someone else; maybe she lost control of her car; maybe she fell asleep at the wheel; maybe the other driver fell asleep at the wheel. By engaging in this kind of thinking pattern, it then makes it easier for your child to attribute a low test score to difficult material, or that a friend not saying hello in the hall does not automatically mean that it was because she was upset with you, but rather maybe she didn’t do well on her math test, or that she isn’t feeling well.
Even Celebrities Are Not Perfect
We all perceive celebrities as being perfect, having perfect lives, and eating perfect meals. But guess what - did you know that Michael Jordon did not make his high school basketball team? A quick Google search for "celebrities with ADHD" will yield a large list of people who struggle and are less than perfect. Find people on that list who your child identifies with and likes. It will make it easy to relate back to their celebrity role models and realize that they were, indeed, not perfect either.
Perfectionism is a common struggle for many children and teens. Incorporating some of these habits into daily life can help lessen the desire for perfection and ultimately, lead to a reduction in stress and anxiety levels for those who need it.