Perfectionist Children: Tips to Manage Their Stress

This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of Cville Family magazine. 

We all want our children to strive for greatness. But what happens when your child’s quest for perfection becomes all-consuming?stressed child

She may stay up late into the night re-doing a project that was fine from the start. He may avoid completing tasks that he knows he can’t master perfectly. Or she may consider herself a failure for not living up to her own unrealistic expectations.

According to Laura Shaffer, PhD., a pediatric psychologist at UVA Children’s Hospital, children who display these kinds of perfectionist tendencies are more likely to experience anxiety and stress. “These are kids who always want things to be just so,” she says. “They may get frustrated easily when things aren’t going their way or they may be paralyzed by their desire to get something just right.”

Eventually, the pressure becomes too much, and the stress manifests in a variety of ways. “Because children often can’t verbalize how they’re feeling, they first show signs of stress in their behavior, through tantrums or angry outbursts,” says Shaffer. “They may also have physical symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, sleep disturbances, weight loss or weight gain.”

Finding Balance

Unaddressed, constant stress may lead to more serious problems, such as social anxiety, eating disorders or an inability to follow through with day-to-day tasks. That’s why it’s important for parents to step in and help their child find balance sooner rather than later. Not sure where to begin? Shaffer suggests the following tips:

Embracing Good Enough

With guidance, children can learn to manage perfectionist tendencies. If you’re concerned that your child may be anxious or depressed, talk to your pediatrician or contact UVA Children’s Hospital to find a provider near you.

  • Model flexibility. Through your actions and reactions, you can help your child recognize that it’s okay to make mistakes. Spilled milk? Nothing a paper towel won’t fix. Wrong turn? Take another route or back up and try again. “It’s important to show kids that some mistakes are truly no big deal,” says Shaffer.
  • Be receptive. Allow your child to discuss her concerns and worries openly rather than dismissing them as insignificant. The more you learn about her stress triggers, the more you can help her avoid them or manage them appropriately.
  • Teach time management. Help your child avoid feeling overwhelmed by establishing consistent routines and breaking tasks into smaller, manageable pieces.
  • Don’t over-schedule. With every new activity comes more pressure to be the best, yet less time to work toward achieving that goal. “It’s important to find a good balance with all kids,” says Shaffer. “However, there’s a greater risk with perfectionist children getting overwhelmed by too many activities.”
  • Encourage wellness. Be sure your child is getting enough sleep and physical activity, which are important for keeping stress in check. “Teaching children strategies for relaxation can help them take control of their emotions,” says Shaffer.
  • Look within. Recognize your own perfectionist tendencies and work to address them. “Being aware is really important if you have those tendencies yourself,” says Shaffer. “You have to learn to let go; there’s a fine line between pushing kids to excel and causing them unnecessary stress.”

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