Most parents want their kids to work hard and try their best at whatever they do. But is there ever a time when all that effort actually becomes unhealthy?
Sometimes kids can push themselves too hard, trying to attain a goal or achieve results that either aren’t realistic or never seem “good enough” to them. At that point, a good work ethic and high standards can actually become destructive perfectionism. This mindset can be really damaging because it breeds anxiety, low self-esteem, and a fear of failure. It’s also been linked to eating disorders, migraines, and depression.
Destructive perfectionism can crop up at any time or related to almost any activity your child is involved in, but for many it’s connected to school—homework, sports skills that kids feel their teammates are relying on them to master, club commitments, and college or internship applications all can carry pressures that make kids feel like they need to be perfect.
If your kid is often really self-critical and focused on their imperfections and mistakes, they might have perfectionist tendencies. Here are some ways to recognize and help your child overcome destructive perfectionism.
How to spot destructive perfectionism in kids
1. Perfectionists are often self-conscious and easily embarrassed, afraid of not getting things “right.”
2. They may procrastinate or have difficulty prioritizing or finishing tasks because the work is never “good enough.” Once they complete a task or project, they might focus primarily on the parts they perceive as being done wrong or not up to their standards.
3. They may also be afraid to try new things out of a fear of failure.
4. Perfectionists get frustrated easily and are highly self-critical and hard on themselves when they make mistakes. You might notice your child erasing things multiple times or balling their homework up and starting over.
How to help kids overcome destructive perfectionism
1. Affirm with positive messages and compassion, and validate their difficult feelings.
2. Normalize mistakes in your everyday life together, both theirs and your own. Failure is an important part of learning!
3. Help your child identify what can and can’t be controlled, to make it clear that not everything can be “perfected.”
4. Encourage self-reflection when possible instead of giving direct feedback in order to promote a growth mindset. Growth mindset focuses on the process and progress working toward a goal, rather than just results or traits that are fixed (like just being naturally good at soccer, rather than realizing that you can improve soccer skills with practice).
5. Help them get to the root of the pressure they feel. As Brené Brown said, “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.'” Check in with your child and find out if they’re defining themselves by their successes (and failures).
What to say to your perfectionist child
1. Lift them up with frequent affirmations like, “I love you just the way you are,” and, “What a lot of creative thought you’ve put into working on this problem!”
2. Normalize mistakes by saying, “We all mess up sometimes—that’s how we learn!”
3. Identify things they can and can’t control by pointing out, “You can’t control how hard the teacher makes a test or how well others play soccer, but you CAN control your effort.”
4. Encourage self-reflection about their process or effort with questions like, “How did you feel leading up to and after the test?” “There are lots of ways to do this—what do you want to try first?” or, “What will you try differently next time?”