Do you have a child who strives to be the best? Gets down on herself when she doesn’t do as well on the test that she’d like? Stays up all night worrying about the classroom presentation the next day? States that she has to be “the best” and if she isn’t she feels “like a failure”?
Your child’s anxiety might be because she’s a perfectionist.
What is perfectionism?
Thinking like a perfectionist is noting what’s wrong with a situation and focusing on what can be done to make it better. It doesn’t always lead to needing to feel like she’s the best among her peers, but it does usually mean your child has high standards for herself—standards that she may find difficult to meet.
It usually results from a hypercritical eye that sees what’s wrong with a situation, instead of focusing on what’s right or working well. Perfectionists get stuck in the details instead of looking at the big picture.
When being a perfectionist is healthy
It’s not a bad thing to be a perfectionist. This type of thinking can lead to a high performing child who aims to be the best that she can be in a variety of activities in her life. She’s usually analytical, reviews what she’s accomplished, notices areas of improvement, and lays out a plan to implement how to do it differently next time.
A child who is a perfectionist can also be very conscientious of others feelings and needs, so she may be quick to defend or advocate for the rights of others–a noble trait!
If in a healthy mindset, your child’s ability to be a reformer and achiever and detail oriented will help her to focus on what she’d like to achieve, help her to thrive in life, and have a successful career in advocacy, quality assurance or hey—pretty much whatever she sets her mind too!
When perfectionism becomes unhealthy
If not in a healthy mind frame—a perfectionist child is an anxious child.
She can get overly anxious in preparation for having to perform on a test or a presentation in class. This can cause her to stay up at night, get overly tired, and then become unfocused and too anxious to perform at her best.
Perfectionism can lead her to procrastinate on school assignments because she’s too focused on being perfect. She therefore ends up turning in homework late, not at all, or waiting to the last minute to complete an assignment.
As a result of the anxiety and procrastination, it increases the likelihood that she doesn’t perform as well as she’d like, or gets a lower-than-desired grade on a test or assignment. This reinforces the feeling that she could have done better, and the thought process “I’m not good enough.”
Then her thoughts become increasing self-critical and she becomes even more anxious and even more perfectionistic!
It ends up being a vicious cycle where your child spirals downward.
Oftentimes obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors begin in order to cope with the thoughts she’s feeling. It’s not uncommon for perfectionist children to become withdrawn and isolate, as the world becomes too difficult to deal with.
Bottom line: Ultimately, a child with perfectionism is a gift to the world. She’ll strive to do her best and help others do so as well.
Helping your child get rid of the cycle of critical thinking so she doesn’t get down on herself will increase effective and production self-reflection. This will in turn improve study habits, encourage healthy coping skills, reduce anxiety and stave off depression.
If you’ve found that your child’s perfectionist thinking is leading her into depression, panic attacks, or obsessive behaviors, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. If your child or anyone else in your life is suicidal or has thoughts of harming him or herself call the suicide lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, call 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.