Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. It can motivate us to perform our best and yet interfere with daily activities – especially when there is an unhealthy preoccupation with past mistakes and excessive fixation on predicting future errors.
The line between giving our best versus expecting ourselves not to make mistakes is thin. What are some tell-tale signs that your child may be exhibiting unhealthy perfectionism?
Impaired daily functioning
The child may present symptoms such as gastric issues, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, etc. They may also feel anxious when undertaking a task and depressed if they do not perform up to standard. Other signs include berating or punishing themself for making a trivial mistake, or not achieving the intended grade. In more severe (and yet common) cases, some may turn to self-harm to cope with the distress of their perceived failure.
Perfectionists have a strong need to appear ideal or perfect in others’ eyes. Thus, the child may become excessively fixated on people’s thoughts of them. This could result in people-pleasing tendencies and a reduced concept of self. Their emotional state may be based on another person’s treatment of them, rather than on how they make sense of the situation.
Pitfalls of such thinking can result in “mind-reading” – the need to read what others are thinking, as well as “catastrophising” – the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario. In the long run, constantly being on edge can result in hypervigilance and burnout.
A lesser-known repercussion of perfectionism is procrastination. Some perfectionists tend to wait for the right moment before they start on a task (e.g. having a perfect plan etc), whereas some are so afraid of the outcome that they do not try at all. The possibility of failure is more daunting than starting the task itself.
Parents need to teach their child to view mistakes as an essential part of strengthening self-esteem. So how can you support your child in managing unhealthy perfectionism
First, be aware of how your expectations as parents can affect your child’s self-perception and standards. Children learn by modelling. As parents, it is good to take a step back and see if you are unconsciously exhibiting perfectionist expectations on your child.
If you struggle with the above as a parent, try to overcome it with self-compassion. Self-compassion is the ability to treat yourself kindly despite knowing your shortcomings and mistakes. This helps to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude towards ourselves and makes us feel safer owning our mistakes. Self-compassion also helps to facilitate a growth mindset, which purports that our abilities can be built, rather than let a single outcome determine our competence. This helps children build a sense of mastery, which is crucial to developing their self-esteem as well as a healthy identity.
There are times when we, as parents, require additional help. There is nothing wrong with it. If your child is experiencing mental health symptoms persistently for two weeks or more, seek professional help such as therapy, counselling, or psychiatric treatment.
TOUCH Mental Wellness is here to support you and your child. Please call TOUCHline at 1800 377 2252 (Mondays to Fridays, 9am to 6pm) if you would like to speak with a counsellor.
TOUCH Mental Wellness (TMW) runs personalised therapy and counselling programmes to empower individuals to rise above their circumstances. An advocate of mental wellness, TMW has been organising mental wellness awareness mass runs, talks and workshops since 2015. It works closely with corporations to conduct mental wellness talks with an aim of equipping employees with handles to cope with stress and help them build resilience. It also specialises in mental wellness awareness and educational programmes for schools.