How to Help Your Perfectionist Child


By Brooke Skipper, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

If you have a perfectionist child, you most likely already know it. You’ve witnessed the crying episodes, self-doubt, and meltdowns. Perfectionist children set unrealistic goals and then place enormous pressure on themselves to reach those goals.

While it’s good for kids to hold high expectations of themselves, those seeking perfection will never be satisfied with their performance. To a perfectionist child, a 99% on a test is often a failure.

Additional warning signs of a child with perfectionist tendencies can include high anxiety surrounding failure, trouble making decisions or procrastinating to avoid tasks, or difficulty completing tasks because the work is “never good enough.” You may also notice that your child is overly self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed.

Perfectionist children seek our reassurance constantly, but this is only a band-aid. It does not necessarily change their all-or-nothing thinking. When we meet our child’s feelings of anxiety, frustration, and failure by saying “You’re okay,” or “It will be fine,” it creates a disconnect between their emotions and our response.

Perfectionist children genuinely do not feel they are okay or that it will be fine. A more helpful response is to meet our child where they are and connect with the emotion they are presenting. You can do this by helping them label the emotion they are feeling. Say something like, “I can see you are feeling anxious about making a mistake.”

Other steps we can use to help change our child’s perfectionist thinking include the following:

Make a point to monitor our own expectations for our child. Are we fueling their perfectionist tendencies by setting unrealistic goals?

  1. Praise the effort instead of the outcome. When we focus on the process rather than the result, we help our children build grit and perseverance. This can look as simple as saying, “I love seeing you practicing your math problems,” instead of, “Great job getting an A on your math test!”
  2. Universalize making mistakes and model healthy ways to handle them. Is your own inner voice too critical? Acknowledging our own mistakes to our children goes a long way in helping them feel less pressure to be perfect.
  3. 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.
  4. Whether your child is melting down on the athletic field after a missed play or spending hours critiquing their image, the all-or-nothing thinking of perfectionism can be damaging to their quality of life.

Perfectionists may be at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Paying attention to your child’s behavior and supporting them through their perfectionist thinking is a helpful way to ensure a strong and healthy future.