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Parenting a Perfectionist - Banish the 'All or Nothing' Thinking

Clothes having to match. Toys arranged in neat rows. Outbursts over not being able to get a task right the first time. These behaviors can indicate to parents that they may have a perfectionist on their hands, for better or for worse. Perfectionists have high standards. Perfectionists can be driven to achieve. But they can also get tied up in knots over their expectations of themselves. And as psychologist Madeline Levine suggests in her book, Teach Your Children Well, performance-oriented children “are so afraid of failing that they challenge themselves far less, take fewer risks, and therefore limit opportunities for growth.”

How can parents recognize a perfectionist tendency in their child? And what actions can they take to help their child do their best without getting hung up on ‘best’ never being good enough? A few experts and parents offer their advice:

Model making mistakes - The truth is as adults, we can also struggle with setting our standards too high for ourselves, and our children. We may not handle our own failure well, unwittingly communicating a negative attitude toward mistakes. Instead, we can help our children by admitting our own behavior needs an adjustment.

“You don’t want to stress that children shouldn’t make mistakes in the first place,” says Dr. Wendy Grolnick, psychologist and author of Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. “You want to have the attitude that mistakes are our friends. We learn from them.”

Kelly Arabie, a mom of two, works to pass this attitude along to her kids. “The faith journey I’ve been on has taught me that life is very much a process and that I’m not going to be perfect as long as I’m living. It’s a gift I can give my children to be able to share that with them.”

Occasionally point out a mistake you made to your child. Talk about the outcome - that it didn’t derail life and that it doesn’t reflect poorly on you. Explain what you’ll do to correct the mistake or what you plan to do differently the next time. Let your child see you learn from your mistake.

This goes for owning up to imperfect parenting, too. Allowing your child to let you off the hook for a mistake made toward them helps them develop a tolerance and compassion toward others’ blunders. It can also help them understand that others will want to show the same compassion for their errors. And ultimately, your child will learn to be compassionate toward themself.

Focus on the process, not the outcome - Perfectionists tend to be most concerned about the end product. Oftentimes a perfectionist will redo work over and over in an attempt to achieve a flawless result. But they miss the enjoyment of learning along the way.

Kathryn Johnson’s son, Alex, is a hard-working student who takes this approach. “I see him striving to do his best,” she says. “But it borders on constant dissatisfaction. He always thinks, ‘I can do better.’”

Unfortunately, these children don’t always gain much for their efforts: a York University study of elementary and junior high school students found that perfectionists didn’t score any better than their peers. But don’t tell a perfectionist that. Their competitive nature will only push them harder toward the goal of doing better than others. Of course, as Dr. Grolnick points out, our outcome-based academic culture isn’t helping them either.

“There’s more competition than ever before. There’s more stress on grades and standardized test scores. It is a setup for kids focusing on outcomes.”

Parents can help by encouraging their child to recognize their growth and what they have learned from an assignment or task. Instead of asking, “What grade did you get?” Ask, “What did you learn about today,” or “What stood out from the unit you just completed?”

“I would like to see learning as a lifetime process and help my children to see that as well,” says Arabie, which makes it important for parents to talk about what they’re learning, too. Children appreciate seeing that parents, who they might think ‘know it all,’ are still acquiring knowledge and skills. And they’re still enjoying the act of learning itself.

A focus on outcomes also plays out in an aversion to challenges. Perfectionists will stick with tasks they’re sure to complete well, instead of delving into new territory. It’s up to parents to notice this behavior and assist their child in combating it.

Dr. Levine notes, “The best way we can help our children welcome challenges is to encourage them to work just outside their comfort zone, stand by to lend a hand when needed, and model enthusiasm for challenging tasks.”

Live with limits - Johnson found it helped her son when she set limits for him to complete tasks.

“A lot of it was encouraging him to stop working on something,” she says. “We had to help him realize that at some point he’d wreck his work in trying to fix it.” Letting go has been central in his adjustments, and learning to pick a stopping point. Otherwise, as she puts it, “Where does it end?”

Try setting a deadline for completing a task. Use a timer during homework.

Parents may also find their child letting natural deadlines speed up their work - procrastination can be common among perfectionists. For a procrastinator, chunk projects into smaller pieces and set mini-deadlines for achieving each of those chunks.

Perfectionists also need to learn to live with their own limits. This means acknowledging that the ideal in their head may not be possible in this world. A good phrase to teach a perfectionist to say to themself is: ‘This is the best I can do for now,’ promoting the idea that improvement is always possible.

Validate the child for who they are - Parents can inadvertently communicate that they value accomplishment and results, what Grolnick calls “contingent parental regard” by giving more attention when a child performs well, and less when they don’t. It’s easy to slip into when we want to praise a child for work well done. But it can work against us when the child associates the praise with being valued for what they do. Let your child know your love is unconditional. Be vocal about it. Parents should tell their kids, “You’re no less loved if you don’t do something perfectly,” says Grolnick.

Arabie echoes this in how she talks with her children. She’ll tell them, “I love you for who you are and not what you do.”

It may take being specific, such as telling your child that it’s okay that they struggle in a certain area or that a B or C grade is just fine.

As you implement any or all of these strategies, remember: parenting any child, perfectionist or not, is an imperfect job done by imperfect people, which makes each of us practically perfect for doing it.

Lara is a parenting journalist, mom to three girls, and sometimes a perfectionist herself. 


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