What to Do When Your Child Is a Perfectionist

Perfectionists struggle to get their work done.

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Perhaps you’ve heard a parent proudly say something like, “My son stayed up all night getting his science fair project just right. He’s a bit of a perfectionist!” But any parent who thinks perfectionism is a status symbol likely doesn’t understand that perfectionism is a serious problem.

If you’re raising a perfectionist, you’ve likely seen firsthand how difficult it can be. Torn up papers, late nights, and crying episodes are just a few of the behaviors you might witness in a budding perfectionist.

Whether your child melts down whenever they make a mistake on the athletic field or spends hours every day trying to take a perfect selfie, perfectionism takes a toll on children’s lives. And when it goes unchecked, it can have long-termconsequences.

What Is Perfectionism?

It’s good for kids to hold high expectations of themselves. But if they expect everything to be perfect, they’ll never be satisfied with their performance.

Perfectionists establish unrealistic goals for themselves. Then, they place enormous pressure on themselves to try and reach their goals. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Whether they get a 99 instead of 100 on a math test or miss one out of 10 foul shots, perfectionists declare their performance a dismal failure when they fall short of their goals.

When they do succeed, they struggle to enjoy their accomplishments. They often chalk up their achievements to good luck and worry they won’t be able to replicate the results or maintain their level of success.

Types of Perfectionism

Some researchers believe it’s possible to be an adaptive perfectionist, meaning that a child’s unrealistically high expectations could actually serve them well in life. But other researchers argue that true perfectionism is always harmful.

Researchers have also identified three distinct types of perfectionism:

  • Other-oriented perfectionists: Set unrealistic standards for other people
  • Self-oriented perfectionists: Hold unrealistic expectations for themselves
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists: Believe other people, such as parents or coaches, have unrealistic expectations of them

All three types of perfection can be harmful to a child’s well-being.

Symptoms

Warning signs of perfectionism vary depending on your child’s age and the type of perfectionism they experience. But, in general, symptoms of perfectionism may include:

  • Difficulty completing assignments because the work is never "good enough"
  • High anxiety surrounding failure
  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • Low frustration tolerance when a mistake is made
  • Procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks
  • Self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed
  • Trouble making decisions or prioritizing tasks
  • Very critical of other people

Risk Factors

Scientists think there are several factors that may contribute to perfectionism in children.

  • Academic pressures: Children may fear a less than perfect GPA or less than perfect test scores will sabotage their efforts to get into a good college. Others try to be perfect so they can get scholarships. Those academic pressures can cause them to feel like they need to be perfect to get anywhere in life.
  • Biological factors: Research shows that perfectionism is closely related to certain mental illnesses, like obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders. This leads scientists to believe there may be a biological component to perfectionism.
  • Desire to please: Some children want to gain admiration and affection by showing they can be perfect in every way. This may stem from a desire to reduce a parent’s stress or it may be the only way a young person knows how to get attention.
  • Low self-worth: Kids who feel bad about themselves may think they are only as good as their achievements. Perfectionists tend to focus on their mistakes and minimize their accomplishments, however, which prevent them from ever feeling good enough.
  • Parental influences: Praising your child for being the smartest kid in the whole school or for sticking every landing in gymnastics could cause them to believe mistakes are bad. They may think they have to succeed at all costs.
  • Parents who are perfectionists: Parents who are perfectionists are more likely to raise children who are perfectionists. This may stem from learned behavior if a child witnesses a parent’s quest for perfection or may also reflect a genetic disposition.
  • Sensationalism of success and failure: From elite athletes to the latest pop star, the media often portrays people as perfect. At the same time, other media stories sensationalize how one mistake led someone to become a complete failure. These media stories may convince young people they need to be perfect at everything they do.
  • Trauma: Traumatic experiences may cause children to feel like they are unloved or that they won’t be accepted unless they are perfect.

Potential Dangers of Perfectionism

Being a perfectionist won’t make your child rise to the top. In fact, perfectionism may have the opposite effect.

  • Anxiety over making a mistake prevents some perfectionists from succeeding. Their fear of failure prevents them from trying new things.
  • Children who are perfectionists often mask their pain and turmoil. They feel compelled to appear perfect on the outside, and consequently, many of them suffer silently when problems arise.
  • Perfectionists have higher levels of stress. Since perfectionists feel compelled to avoid mistakes, they’re under high levels of stress all the time. And too much stress can be bad for a person’s physical and emotional health.
  • Perfectionism may lead to mental health problems. Perfectionists may be at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

How to Address Perfectionism

If you see warning signs that your child is a budding perfectionist, there are several things you can do to help.

  • Help your child develop healthy self-esteem. Encourage your child to engage in activities that help them feel good about who they are, not just what they accomplish. Volunteering, learning new things, and engaging in artistic endeavors are just a few ways to help your child develop a healthier self-esteem. 
  • Help your child identify what they can control and what they can’t. Whether your child wants to be the best basketball player in the whole school or to ace every biology exam, make it clear that they can’t control many of the circumstances that influence success, such as how hard the teacher makes tests or how well their peers perform. But they can control their own effort.
  • Model healthy self-talk. Teach your child to use self-compassion as opposed to self-criticism. Have conversations with yourself out loud to show your child that you treat yourself with kindness even when you make a mistake. Say things like, “I forgot to go to the bank today before they closed. I’ll try to do better tomorrow,” or “I wasn’t paying attention to the stove and I burned dinner. I’ll find something else for us to eat and I’ll pay attention when I’m cooking it.”
  • Monitor your expectations. Make sure you aren’t putting pressure on your child to be perfect. Create high but reasonable expectations. And monitor your expectations over time to make sure you aren’t expecting too much from your child. If they fail to meet your goals or want to quit trying to reach these goals, you may expect too much from your child.
  • Praise your child’s efforts rather than the outcome. Avoid praising your child for getting a 100 on a spelling test. Instead, praise them for studying hard. Also, praise them for treating others with kindness or for being a good friend. Make it clear that achievement isn’t the only important thing in life.
  • Set realistic goals with your child. Talk to your child about goals they want to reach. If these goals require perfection, talk about the dangers of setting unrealistically high goals and help them establish more realistic goals.
  • Share stories of your own failures. Make it clear to your child that you aren’t perfect. Tell them about the time you didn’t get a job or you failed a test. Explain how you coped with your failure.
  • Teach healthy coping skills. Although failure is uncomfortable, it’s not intolerable. Teach your child how to deal with disappointment, rejection, and mistakes in a healthy way. Talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or drawing a picture are just a few coping skills that could help them deal with their feelings.

When to Seek Professional Help

Be on the lookout for signs that your child’s perfectionism is causing social problems. For example, if your child refuses to socialize because they are on a quest to get a perfect grade, or they cry whenever they don’t get an A in class, their social life will likely suffer and they may need professional help.

Educational difficulties are another warning sign that your child may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. For example, if your child can’t finish projects because they think their work isn’t good enough or they rip up papers whenever they make a mistake, professional help may be necessary.

If you are concerned that your child is a perfectionist, talk to your child’s primary care physician. Discuss the signs that you are seeing and share how those issues impact your child’s life.

A physician may refer your child to a mental health professional for an assessment. If treatment is warranted, your child may benefit from therapy to reduce their perfectionism and anxiety.

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6 Sources
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