Your daughter comes home from school one day and says, “I’m not going back to school anymore.” You inquire why.
“Because the teacher gives unfair tests.”
“Do you think you didn’t do well on the test?”
When she gets back her test and her grade is an 85, you’re happy. She is not. Maybe you think she wants to be an “A” student and wants to try harder. That’s a great trait to have. But her reaction to not wanting to go back to school or her negative view of the 85 makes you start thinking.
This same daughter returns from playing on the trampoline with her younger brother stating, “I am never playing with him again, I told him to stop bouncing into me on the trampoline and he wouldn’t stop, so I pushed him off.”
You think to yourself, is this just sibling rivalry, over-reaction or perhaps anger issues.
Another scenario: Your 12-year-old son gets off a Zoom session with his teacher and says, “I hate Zoom! It’s stupid and I don’t want it anymore.”
This is a normal reaction for a student who finds it hard to focus on a screen or listen to a teacher teach remotely for 50 minutes. Maybe it’s ADD or difficulty with auditory processing. These severe reactions to situations may be a sign of perfectionism.
Definition of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is defined as a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. Perfectionism is often thought to be a positive characteristic, involving striving to achieve high standards without experiencing negative consequences. However, certain aspects of perfectionism can often be associated with negative consequences such as: anxiety, frustration/anger, depression and eating disorders. It is closely related to OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
In some ways, kids with perfectionist leanings are the kind of kid you “hope to have” says Dunya Poltorak, Ph.D., a pediatric and young adult medical psychologist with a private practice in Birmingham, Michigan. They tend to be “responsible, achievement- oriented, have good values, and are very principled.”
But there is often an overlooked down side.
With most kids now learning remotely from home, I receive reports from parents complaining about how much anger and frustration their child is having with online learning. For some, it is difficulty focusing on the lesson. One parent related watching his child storm off to her room frustrated about getting two wrong answers on a math worksheet (as opposed to focusing on the 18 answers she answered correctly). The frustration, due to perceived failure on the part of the young student, will often metastasize into a meltdown.
Having understanding teachers who can recognize perfectionist tendencies often helps. They can encourage their students by saying things like, “You can’t learn if you don’t make mistakes,” and get the student to focus on positive aspects, such as the things she did correctly, or her ability to be consistent and finish an assignment, etc. These types of subtle tips help a student to realize no one is perfect and everyone goes through a “learning process.”
Roots of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is common and it can have many origins. It is inheritable, says Gordon Flett, Ph.D. the director of LaMarsh Center for Child and Youth Research at York University, who has been researching perfectionism in children and adults for years. Some children show signs of perfectionism when they are as young as three or four, he notes.
But genetics are not the whole story. Research has determined that perfectionism has increased among children and teenagers over the past few decades and studies show that by the time children reach adolescence, between 25% and 30% of them have “maladaptive perfectionism,” or striving for unrealistic perfection to the point of causing them pain. A greater number have less destructive forms of perfectionism. If left unchecked, perfectionism is a serious risk factor for clinical depression and anxiety.
Signs of Problematic Perfectionism
Problematic perfectionism is not easy to identify. One sign that your child may have perfectionist tendencies is if he or she becomes excessively self-deprecating. They may say things like, “I’m so stupid, how did I mess up? I hate myself. I can’t do anything right.” Those kinds of self-deprecating comments are worrisome says Poltorak.
Another sign your child may exhibit is having trouble getting over a perceived failure. Poltorak explains, “It’s typical for a child to have a frustrated response to something that didn’t go their way. The problem is if it’s happening a lot and they can’t move on from it.”
A third sign is that they shy away from trying new things you know they want to do.
And a fourth sign is a lack of ability to be happy or satisfied with accomplishments, because they’re so busy ripping apart their triumphs.