Letting Go of Perfect: How Perfectionism Hurts Children

This blog is Part Two of a three-part series on perfectionism.

Most parents would feel proud if they thought they had the “perfect” child. But few look at the downside of perfectionism and how striving for it can hurt children. In today’s competitive environment, children cannot just be perfect on paper, amassing a large digital resume good grades and extracurricular activities. They need to have real skills to navigate the ups and down of teacher demands, changing friendships, emotional stresses, and job competition. Even if your child is in elementary school, you can start empowering them now to avoid the anxiety caused by perfectionism and raise wonderful, talented children who are resilient, happy, and take responsibility for their own actions.

Marta is in first grade. When you look at her homework, there are spots where the paper is thin from being erased so many times. It is not that Marta made mistakes. Instead, she worries that her letters are not perfect, so she erases and rewrites them over and over again. Homework is a time of stress for her and no matter how often her teachers tell her that her letters look fine, she worries that her work isn’t good enough.

Zoe, a young teenager, suffers from a different kind of perfectionism. She never thinks that what she wears is exactly right, and this feeling of wrongness carries over, becoming discomfort in how she interacts with her peers. She is afraid to do things by herself, needing a sidekick who can reassure her that she looks good enough and that she says the right things. As a result, her true self never shines through that wall of anxiety. She won’t try activities if a friend won’t go with her, is reluctant to speak up in class, and feels worried and stressed all the time.

While these two children are very different, they both suffer from their perceived need to be perfect. Reassurance from teachers and friends doesn’t seem to help much, so what can you do as a parent? Try these six strategies below:

Share Your Struggles
Don’t let your children think you are perfect and that everything comes easily to you. When appropriate, share your struggles and let them know that making mistakes and learning from them is ok. Think back to what you were like at their age, and let them know that there were things that you also found difficult.

Encourage Risk Taking
Encourage your children to take risks and explain to them that only by taking chances can we learn and grow. If things go well, we feel great. And if things do not work out, we learn to bounce back and try again. We call this resilience, and it is an important quality to help us get through life. It is especially important to take these chances while still living with the family, so that you can help them by discussing what went wrong or right, and how they can make changes next time.

Discourage Playing It Safe
Don’t let your children always take the safe alternative. Like the point above about taking risks, playing it safe hurts us because it prevents us from learning the benefits of trial and error. Playing it safe may make a child feel safe and secure today, but as they grow and are exposed to more things, they will feel less and less capable.

Don’t Be a Critic
Don’t criticize and correct your child for not being perfect in homework, dress, choice of school projects and even activities they choose (even if you think you are perfect and always know what is right!). Allow your child to make his or her own choices, and to learn from those experiences. Making our own choices helps us develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and contributes to a good self-image and self-esteem.

Teach Life Skills
Make sure that your children learn life skills, starting from chores at home to things like packing their sports bags, doing laundry and ironing, ordering in restaurants, talking to their teachers, dealing with adults in stores and managing a bank account. These are appropriate life skills that can be taught at every age. By doing this, children learn that they are capable, and are not afraid when it’s time to function in the larger world.

Encourage Independent Choices
Encourage your children to make their own plans—whether it’s choosing courses, deciding what extracurricular activities to select, or where to go to camp. When we make all of the plans for our kids, even laying out their life plan and career, children do not learn to think for themselves and do not figure out who they want to be. And then, if something goes wrong, they are stuck…they do not know what to do and end up asking you to make the decision for them.

There are many things we can do to help us grow less anxious, more resilient children. Some advice even comes from children themselves.This is a great Asbury Park Press article written by a New Jersey teen on how overprotective parenting is hurting children.
It is important to think about the ways in which you can help your children feel good about themselves and their efforts. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

See my first blog on the warning signs of perfectionism.

All material contained on this blog is for information purposes only. This information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional psychological advice. Always consult a qualified professional prior to utilizing any of the information provided in this post.