Perfectionism in Children
Children who have perfectionist tendencies often exhibit a continuum of behaviors. On one end of the spectrum are children who take pleasure from doing difficult tasks, setting high standards for themselves, and putting forth the necessary energy for great achievement. On the other end of the continuum are those children who are unable to glean satisfaction from their efforts due to their preset, unrealistic goals. Since mistakes are unacceptable, perfectionism provides these students with little pleasure and much self-reproach.
Leah Davies is the creator of the award-winning Kelly Bear resources for adults to use with children ages 3-9. Kelly Bear resources include books, DVDs, a game, a CD of songs, a puppet, and Kelly Bear C.A.R.E.S. (Character and Resiliency Education Skills), a multimedia curriculum for large or small groups of children.
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Teachers, counselors, and parents say the Kelly Bear materials are effective in bonding with young students and instilling skills related to respect; self-understanding and self-control; peer interaction; motivation and perseverance; healthy choices; problem solving skills; and more.
Davies has been dedicated to the well-being of children for more than four decades as a certified teacher, counselor, prevention specialist, parent, and grandparent. Her professional experience includes teaching, counseling, and consulting. In addition, she has taught at the university level (Auburn University) and directed educational and prevention services at a mental health agency. Her articles have appeared in The American School Counseling Association Counselor, The School Counselor, Elementary School Guidance and Counseling Journal, Early Childhood News, and National Head Start Association Journal. She has presented workshops at national meetings of the American School Counselor Association; Association for Childhood Education International; National Association for the Education of Young Children; National Child Care Association; National Head Start Association; and National School-Age Child Care Alliance.
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Perfectionism appears to result from a combination of inborn tendencies and environmental factors. These can include excessive praise or demands from parents, teachers or trainers; observation of adults modeling perfectionist characteristics; and parental love that is conditional upon the child`s exemplary achievement. Extreme perfectionism has been linked to performance and social anxiety, eating disorders, migraine headaches, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and suicide. When this behavior obstructs growth in the areas of achievement and social relationships, these children need assistance from educators.
Some characteristics of children who are extreme perfectionists include the following:
having exceptionally high expectations for themselves
being self-critical, self-conscious and easily embarrassed
having strong feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence
exhibiting persistent anxiety about making mistakes
being highly sensitive to criticism
procrastinating and avoiding stressful situations or difficult tasks
being emotionally guarded and socially inhibited
having a tendency to be critical of others
exhibiting difficulty making decisions and prioritizing tasks
experiencing headaches or other physical ailments when they perform below the expectations of themselves or others.
Gifted children, who are accustomed to excelling, are often perfectionists. Problems occur if they refuse to attempt new assignments or do not complete their work because it may not be done flawlessly. The result is gifted children who are underachievers. These students are also susceptible to burnout if they attempt to display exemplary performance in every academic discipline. (See Gifted Children)
Teachers and/or school counselors might be able to help children who exhibit extreme perfectionism in the following ways:
Admit to making mistakes and model constructive coping skills.
Provide a calm, uncluttered, and structured environment.
Create opportunities for success that will enhance the student`s self-confidence.
Comment on the child`s strengths and accomplishments. Do this privately when deemed appropriate or write down constructive observations.
Avoid comparing students.
If possible, reduce the academic pressure on these children by altering the grading system.
Involve them in setting realistic standards for themselves.
Have frequent teacher/child meetings that include evaluations of the student's work.
Use listening and other communication skills. (See Effective Communication)
Challenge students' beliefs that they are failures when they make a mistake; provide a more rational evaluation.
Give specific praise. (See Effective Praise)
Help students understand that it is impossible to complete every task without making mistakes.
Teach students to revise, start again, and learn from their errors.
Challenge students to be courageous and try difficult tasks.
Provide support if students perform at a lower level than expected.
Provide opportunities for these children to become comfortable with ambiguous situations.
Use terms such as "admirable work" rather than "perfect" or "brilliant."
For those students who procrastinate, emphasize the need to change the goal from perfection to completion.
Teach students to prioritize tasks and to break assignments or projects down into manageable parts.
Assign biographies of successful people who overcame failure, persevered, and achieved greatness. For example: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller
Teach children to develop and use positive "self-talk." (See Encouraging Thoughts)
Help students learn ways to cope with negative self-appraisal or criticism from others.
Promote relaxation techniques such as listening to soothing music, counting backward, walking, participating in a hobby, or reading.
Teach the steps to problem-solving (see Building Character in Students) and provide strategies to deal with the pressure to excel.
Ask students to identify areas of their lives that they can control and those they cannot control.
Have children examine the advantages and disadvantages of perfectionism in their lives.
Ask children to keep journals in which they can express their thoughts and feelings.
Help students understand that saying disparaging things about themselves is detrimental to their well-being as well as to their social development.
Help these students learn how to be more generous in their comments toward peers, teachers, and others.
Encourage constructive peer interaction through group work.
HELPING PARENTS WORK WITH
Counselors or teachers may assist the parents of "perfectionist" children by taking the following steps:
Stress that their child needs to experience unconditional love and respect.
Help parents understand that too much pressure to be perfect is detrimental to their child`s emotional well-being and self-confidence. For example, it says to those children, "You are not good enough the way you are."
Support parental self-acceptance of their errors and acceptance of their child`s mistakes.
Encourage parents to acknowledge without judgment their child`s negative emotions such as frustration and anxiety.
Stress that high standards are important, but that there is a difference between perfectionism and excellence.
Encourage parents to model perseverance as well as coping skills when dealing with disappointments.
Ask parents to examine their competitiveness and, when necessary, decrease their emphasis on winning.
Caution parents not to compare their children and thus instill rivalry among them.
Ask parents to explore and agree on realistic goals for the child.
Suggest that a parent engage in a journal exchange if their child has difficulty expressing his or her concerns. For example, the parent writes a thought in a journal and puts it under the childs pillow. The child responds in writing and puts it under the parent`s pillow. The exchange of ideas continues. Since what is written is only discussed if the child is in danger of hurting him or herself or others, the child feels free to write down his or her deepest thoughts and fears. This method assists parents in discovering problems the child may have and serves to reinforce parent-child bonding.
Children who suffer from extreme perfectionism need assistance from the adults in their lives. They may also need help from a professional therapist. The goal of all this support is to reduce the child's perfectionist tendencies to the point where those tendencies become an asset rather than a liability.
Article by Leah Davies, M.Ed.
Reprinted with permission from the
Kelly Bear Web site, www.kellybear.com