Behaviour & Emotions

Parenting a perfectionist child

Perfectionist kids

Parenting a perfectionist child brings a unique set of challenges, the first one being – perfectionism can actually be quite tricky to spot! A perfectionist child might not have an immaculate room and their table manners may be far from perfect. They can be overly cranky and particular, and perfectionists tend to hide a bit. They are not always delighted with their responses to life and can feel ashamed of who they are and what they have or have not done.

Oftentimes a perfectionist will live with an internal critic inside their heads whose voice is harsh, bossy and full of judgements. They may not realise that their critical thoughts towards themselves are making them feel defeated, angry or completely exhausted.

Anyone who is a perfectionist is relieved to find out that there are others who think and struggle like they do.

As parents, one of the biggest challenges can be seeing our children’s full potential restricted by their fears and anxieties. Anyone who is a perfectionist is relieved to find out that there are others who think and struggle like they do. We can offer the comfort and reassurance to our kids that there is nothing wrong with them – and that they can be helped with generous understanding, acceptance and a way to push back on the things that cripple their progress.

Here are five questions I often get asked by parents of perfectionists (parents who may well be perfectionists themselves!).

My hope is that in answering these questions, I can empower parents to experience a deeper understanding of how their amazing child sees the world and their place in it. And as we engage in this conversation, we can all learn new ways to call out the gold in each other.

1. How can you spot a perfectionist? Their rooms may not be tidy, their manners may be missing and they may do lots of things inperfectly but what stands out in making someone a perfectionist?

Perfectionists can be quite hidden – they may not even know they are one but there are a few telltale signs that give you an inkling that your child (or you) is a bit of a perfectionist.

Do any of these relate? - Avoid taking risks or trying something new - Hate making mistakes - Believe that they should not have to practise anything – and simply be good at it from the start - Watch from the side-line until they can memorise or master something - Put off starting something until there is no time left - Do well at school and unravel at home

2. Does it run in the family? If parents are inclined to have very high standards, be picky about things, intent on always being right – can it show up in their children?

It often does, but adults may have found ways to cope with their perfectionist tendencies. It can also make parents anxious if they see their child struggle with the similar sorts of things they themselves still struggle with. The great thing is that parents can ease themselves out of being a perfectionist and grow alongside their child. They can help a child see what is going on and how it might limit their choices too.

The great thing is that parents can ease themselves out of being a perfectionist and grow alongside their child.

3. Is perfectionism perhaps a really good thing? Having someone always wanting to get things right, needing to win all the time, surely that can be helpful?

Left alone, you may have an extremely high performer and a child who is successful in a number of fields, as they are often driven to do well and may be self motivated. But it also can make one’s life quite miserable. A child can fear doing new things, avoid doing anything that might mean a mistake could be made, and feel full of shame for not getting an A + when they got an A. These children can beat themselves up and we might not see that going on, but we will often see a child who loses the plot over seemingly little things.

4. What are the biggest challenges about being a perfectionist?

A perfectionist’s self-talk can be very critical. They can talk unkindly to themselves about how silly or stupid they are. They can fret about doing a new skill in case they get it wrong. They can pull out of a new activity because they are not the best. Their world can get smaller as they try and control all the outcomes. This is very exhausting for them.

The very high standards they set for themselves and others means they can get angry often because they can’t actually control everything the way they want to.

5. How can parents and teachers help a child who is leaning this way?*

Help them see that they are not alone. Here's some ideas to try: - Share the mistakes you make – a perfectionist child needs to know that it is normal and okay to make mistakes and get things wrong sometimes.

  • Develop a family motto that invites freedom to make mistakes as a part of learning. “In our family we make mistakes because that is how we learn.”

  • Introduce the ‘internal critic’ and give it a name – ‘Mr Bossy Voice’ or ‘Miss Meanie’. Let your child see what their self-talk does to their feelings and actions. Encourage your child to express some push back to their inner critic – “Thanks Miss Meanie, but I’ve got this.”

  • Make a ‘we try new things’ chart. Everyone gets to put up the things they have given a go on a sticky note. Things like trying a new flavour of yoghurt, entering a swimming race at school, reading a book from a new author, speaking to someone from another class, having a shower instead of a bath… The idea is to develop flexibility in small steps.

In our family we make mistakes because that is how we learn.

Any final tips?

Model a love of learning and being comfortable with not knowing all the answers. It is great for children to see you seek help and have the humility to let others tell you things you may not know.

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale

Jenny Hale is our Senior Parent Coach and we’ve been lucky enough to have her on our team for over 24 years. She’d love to raise free-range chickens, write children’s books and perhaps even take up horse-riding again.

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