Perfectionist Child: How to Help with Tips from Experts

perfectionist child

Q: My child is a gifted student and an absolute perfectionist. She knows the material, but often can’t seem to complete the work because she worries it won’t be just right.

She’s an excellent writer, yet she couldn’t even write the first paragraph of an assignment without tears because she worried she was getting it all wrong. When she was making a poster for another project, she had a meltdown because her lines weren’t straight enough. And now, because she’s turning in her assignments late or not at all, her grades are starting to suffer.

Her drive to be perfect is even eating into her free time. She’s always loved to paint, but I can’t remember the last time she picked up a paint brush because she complains that nothing she does looks good.
How can I help my perfectionist child?

Being a perfectionist child is common among gifted students

For parents of gifted children, it can be heartbreaking to watch their child struggle through an assignment, especially when the child knows the material and has the ability to successfully complete it and move on.

If you’re one of those parents, know this: You’re not alone.  In fact, about 20% of gifted students have such high expectations for their performance that they have trouble finishing tasks in and out of the classroom, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.

“It can be very debilitating,” said Michael Postma, executive director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted.

The desire for perfection doesn’t have to be crippling, of course. Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, writes in her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities that perfectionism can be a positive trait if it means the child has high standards. High standards, after all, can lead to high achievement.

But, gifted children, unfortunately, often take their desire for excellence and accomplishment to unhealthy levels, stymying their work and throwing up roadblocks to their own success. These children see every school assignment and extracurricular activity as another opportunity to fail. They often fear bad grades and disappointing their teachers and parents, who have high expectations for them. For some students, that drive for perfection can lead to anxiety and depression.

“Bottom line is they are inhibiting their creativity, they are inhibiting their problem solving, they are inhibiting who they are as an individual when they’re suffering from perfectionism because they get stuck so quickly,” Postma said. “You’re actually stunting yourself because there are so many other things you could be doing and doing well.”

Managing fear

Parenting a gifted child who is a perfectionist can be tough, but it’s crucial to find ways to show them that the process is more important than the final grade or outcome.

“Perfectionism is a way of managing fear,” said Phyllis Fagell, school counselor, therapist and author of “Middle School Matters.” “That’s why it’s so hard to combat.”

To help their gifted kids, parents must uncover their child’s underlying fear, Fagell said. Are they worried about letting their parents or teachers down? Do they wonder who they are if they don’t shine in every aspect of their academic lives?

At the same time, parents should model good behavior themselves, Fagell said. Share with your child examples of when you’ve failed and what happened next.

Through books, introduce them to stories of other people, from fictional characters to successful professionals, who have experienced failure. And, she said, don’t forget to laugh when something goes awry, whether it’s falling over while attempting a yoga pose or forgetting an ingredient in the cake you’re baking together.  

“It’s really hard to be stressed and laughing at the same time,” she said. “It’s even better if you can be laughing and making those mistakes together.”

If your gifted child is struggling with perfectionism, here’s what experts say you should do in the moment.

Take a break, consider the odds

“If you see them getting frustrated, remove them from the situation. Put it away for awhile—maybe it’s an hour, maybe it’s the next day, depending on when it’s due. Say, ‘We’re going to do something totally and completely different, and then we’re going to come back to it.’”

Once they return to the project, determine what still needs to be done, but also ask them what, if anything, is actually wrong with their work and what the odds would be of failure if they turned it in as is.

Dr. Michael PostmaExecutive Director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted

Draw the line

“On those nights when kids just can’t seem to finish a project, it’s time to set some boundaries. If your kid is working until all hours of the night, you might have to get in there and set some rules. Give them a half hour warning. Say, ‘We’re going to power down. If your work isn’t perfect, that’s OK. If you want me to let your teacher know I told you that you have to go to sleep, we can write an email together.’ If it’s a younger child, you can write it for them. You do have to be patient because kids who are perfectionists are trying to deal with uncertainty and trying to have some sense of control. It’s easier to hide behind perfection than to admit weakness.”

Phyliss FagellSchool counselor, therapist and author of Middle School Matters

Embrace the mistakes

“Let your child know that it is OK to make mistakes. Do not expect perfection from your child. Mistakes are for learning and they are good. As a whole, our culture expects far too much perfection from children.  Don’t get caught up in that. Talk to your child about how mistakes are part of the learning process.”

Paige LindblomCommunity Outreach Director at Wildrock