Perfection, it seems, isn’t only an impossible goal, it’s also a potentially a harmful one. New research from the American Psychological Association has linked perfectionism with depression, anxiety, even an increased risk of suicide. But how’s a parent to recognize when their child has gone from healthily driven to unhealthily obsessed? And are some parenting styles more likely to cause problems than others?
To better understand this cruel dynamic, we spoke with Guy Winch Ph.D., psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.
What are some signs your kid is unhealthily obsessed with perfection?
Perfectionists are usually never pleased with their performance. If they do extremely well, it’s a “meh.” And if they do even slightly less than perfect, it’s as if they completely failed. A few signs they are way too focused on perfectionism and on results in a psychologically unhealthy way include:
- If your kid is really hard on him or herself unless they do extremely well;
- If their mood is sour when they get an A- because they think they deserved an A;
- If their self-esteem seems tied to the outcome of every exam they take or game they play;
- If they constantly compare themselves to the one other kid in the class/team who did better than them;
- If they’re upset because they messed up insignificant details (“Yeah, I scored three goals but I should have scored that forth”);
- And if the standard they use to measure their own success is different from the one they use to measure others’ success (“My BFF Sara did well, she got a B+. So did I but it sucks because I really wanted an A!”)
Nobody wants to tell their kid to actively avoid being perfect. What can you say to your kid to encourage them to do their best while at the same time promoting acceptance of imperfection?
Way too many parents “joke” when their kids get a 98 on an exam. Like, “Why not 100? Haha!” Kids might smile but they don’t take it as a joke. Never do that.
The best thing for a parent to do is focus their feedback entirely on effort, not on results. Say, “You worked really hard and tried your best, so however you do, you should be proud.” Or, “You skipped several practices over the past month so it’s good to know that if you practiced more you would only improve.”
“Perfection is a result over which they do not have control, but they do have control over their effort.”
These kinds of statements let kids know you’re not focused on perfection but on their effort. Perfection is a result over which they do not have control, but they do have control over their effort. Kids experience this kind of feedback as much less stressful than results-focused feedback.
What relationship does “tiger” parenting have with perfectionism?
There is research that tells us that fear of failure is often passed along from parent to child. When the child fails, the parent either becomes overtly critical and disappointed or subtly so by becoming stiff, cold, and distant. Kids then learn that their parents’ love is tied to their success which massively ramps up the stakes in even small endeavors, leading to totally unnecessary perfectionism. In other words, fathers have to really believe and know that effort is what counts, not results.
What is the single best thing you can tell a kid who just failed?
My model is, “Get Support and Get Real.” Specifically, be there to give support to your kid if they are disappointed and upset — and within the same conversation — move to a discussion of what they could do differently next time.
Studies show that by giving support alone, you might be validating your kids’ perceptions that they are incapable of succeeding. But by being supportive and then helping them figure out how to improve the next time they tackle the same task/class/goal, you’re giving them the message that their future success is in their control as they can tinker with all of these variables, such as their preparation and effort or improving their knowledge and skill set.
Watch Dr. Guy Winch’s “Talks at Google” on Emotional First Aid
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=11&v=vBqoA1V6Fgg expand=1]