Parenting the Perfectionist Child

Welcome to the March 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With Special Needs

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how we parent despite and because of challenges thrown our way. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

My children, like many highly gifted children, lean toward perfectionism. Perfectionism is often called the crucible of giftedness. Accustomed to excelling at any given task right away, having to work at something is a harder experience for these kids (and adults). Unrealistic expectations can result in feelings of failure, being overly self-critical, high anxiety levels, and individuals may be emotionally guarded.

When I was a child, common theory was to push the perfectionist child to get them past their perfectionist ideals. If a child came across something that wasn’t immediately mastered, it was thought they needed to be pushed past that point in order for them understand about hard work and perserverance. For some adults, perfectionism was payback to the child for being too good at everything. I once had an adult say to me with satisfaction when I wasn’t perfect at something on my first time, “Now you know how the rest of us feel.” Comments of “You are smart. You can do it,” were stated in attempts of reassurance, often with the unspoken, and often unintended, flip side of “If you can’t do it, you aren’t smart.”

Luckily for my children, I understand all to well the feelings of perfectionism. I’ve been there, and if I am honest, I’m still there. I am extremely hard on myself in most aspects of life. In a stage of my life when so much time is spent on parenting, I constantly berate and challenge myself to be a better parent, mentally flogging myself for any mistakes.

Silverman explains six reasons why gifted children are perfectionists:

  • Perfectionism is abstract and requires an abstract mind to contemplate that which does not currently exist.
  • Perfectionism is a function of asynchrony between the child’s age and mind. A child with advanced mental abilities expects to be able to act on those abilities but often finds himself limited by physical capabilities.
  • Many gifted children align their expectations with those of their older peers rather than their age cohorts.
  • Gifted children hold enough forethought to ensure success in most endeavors the first time. They will consider all aspects prior to acting, eliminating many objects which would cause failure. As they grow, gifted children have had limited experience with failure. The gifted population also exhibits a much larger percentage of introverts, who tend to be more cautious, than the population as a whole.
  • Gifted individuals seek challenges. When there are none, we create them, often making tasks much more difficult than needed.
  • Perfectionism, a naturally occurring positive phenomenon which drives us to change, is distorted when treated negatively.

Perfectionism itself need not be negative. It can be the catalyst for change, manifesting in self-realization and humanitarian ideals. The pursuit of excellence is driven by perfectionism, striving to reach goals and better one’s self. To eschew perfectionism completely is to disregard the pursuit of excellence. The defining factor of how perfectionism will be regarded and affect an individual is how it is addressed.

What many people, parents included, fail to understand is that perfectionist children are already under an immense amount of pressure from themselves. Recent studies over the past decade have focused more on this aspect, but the information has yet to be adopted by many professionals, let alone parents and other adults. As parents of perfectionist children, there are many ways we can help them develop positive aspects of their personalities:

  • Admit our own mistakes and show how we cope and rectify or live with them. Children often are not privy to nor recognize the mistakes made by their parents, enforcing the idea of their own perfection in a negative light.
  • Provide a calm and uncluttered environment, not just physically but mentally and emotionally, as well. When children have pressure in one aspect of their lives, other pressures may put them over the edge.
  • Use non-violent communication skills to help children. Often misunderstood by others, gifted children may feel more pressure to do things without adequate support, internalizing feelings of loneliness and lack of preparation.
  • Comment on a child’s strengths or work without evaluating. Perfectionists put enough pressure on themselves without external pressure from a parents well-intended praise.

As my children grow older and encounter more difficult tasks, I do what I can for them by way of offering support, encouraging growth, acting as a sounding board for ideas, and showing unconditional love and acceptance. I then step back and allow my children the space they need to work out their problems without any pressure from me; I know they have enough internal pressure.

***

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon March 13 with all the carnival links.)

12 thoughts on “Parenting the Perfectionist Child

  1. As the perfectionist parent to a perfectionist child, thank you for this post – I especially appreciate that you said perfectionism does not have to be a negative. I have been conditioned to think of it as a bad thing, usually – but it serves me well in so many areas!! The part about having an uncluttered environment is interesting to me – I figured my almost obsessive compulsion to have things orderly was a quirk, but perhaps it truly does make it easier for me to think and cope!

  2. Great tips! I especially love the parent suggestion, since both my husband and I are perfectionists. It breaks my heart a little each time I hear my two-year-old screaming “I can’t I can’t” when he is unable to do a difficult task perfectly the first time, so I realy appreciate concrete suggestions to help him deal with that frustration.

  3. As a fellow perfectionist mother of 3 gifted (and 2 perfectionist!) children I found this post very encouraging. I always like to hear that I’m not alone in the challenges of raising gifted kids! I like that we need to be the role models of admitting our mistakes and imperfections so that our kids feel they can do the same. I also wanted to add that I grew up hearing from teachers “She’s very bright but isn’t reaching her potential” and that impacted me quite negatively. I always felt I wasn’t measuring up to whatever ideal other people had for me. I became VERY mindful not to do the same to my kids and really, the term ‘potential’ is very vague and unhelpful anyway…I mean, who really knows what their potential is?
    Thanks for the well-written post!

    • Schools are so ill equipped to deal with gifted children. This was the first reason we made the decision to homeschool any future children, back before we were ever married. We didn’t know what it would look like back then, but we knew we didn’t want to subject them to the school system. While we have added many, many reasons for our unschooling choices over the years, this reason remains in the forefront.

  4. I am far from a perfectionist when it comes to most things but I think it is my coping skill – I WOULD be a perfectionist if I just tried…I know that my parents had to balance the support and encouragement without comparing or evaluating. Your tips look great.

  5. Wonderful post! Both my (now adult) daughter and I have perfectionist tendencies. I found Montessori and homeschooling to be wonderful for both of us. (It was wonderful for my son, too, but not because of perfectionist tendencies.) Montessori education’s lack of grades and tests gave us a chance to step away from feeling educational pressure and allowed my daughter to enjoy college without being burned-out before she started.

    • Unschooling has worked out so well for our family. I’m glad you found something that worked well for your daughter.

  6. Ah, so helpful and so hard to do. Well, perfectly, at least. ;) I especially find myself having trouble demonstrating to my son my mistakes or how I cope. Maybe because I don’t cope so well? Maybe because mistakes are always something that embarrass me? But I see his own perfectionism growing and frustrating him, so I want to do something to let him know, We understand; we’re here to support you. Thanks for the food for thought and the suggestions. I appreciate it.

  7. This post spoke to me in so many ways…

    “Gifted individuals seek challenges. When there are none, we create them, often making tasks much more difficult than needed.” – I do this ALL the time!

    It’s fascinating and helpful to have that insight (and the rest of what is here). Seeing it from the other side as someone who grew up as ‘gifted’ and basically experiencing the exact opposite of what is recommended here, I can absolutely see the importance of supporting that properly in a child.

    Really appreciate all that you’ve shared and look forward to keeping it as a resource/reminder in my parenting toolbox. :)

  8. “Perfectionism, a naturally occurring positive phenomenon which drives us to change, is distorted when treated negatively.” Wow, I think I’ve always felt this way, but have always received such negative messages about perfectionism that it’s been hard to embrace the positive aspects. Thanks for shedding compassion and light on what many people see as a flaw!

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