My Son’s Perfectionism Holds Him Back

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 

At the beginning of the school year, my son received a math assignment for homework. He procrastinated. He waited to start the work until he had no excuses left. His temper exploded once he finally got to work and struggled with the last problem. Despite the fact that he’d successfully answered all the other questions, his temper flared and he erased his work so fiercely that he put a hole in his paper.

Later that week, while playing basketball—and enjoying it—I asked if he wanted to try out for the basketball team this year. He’d been playing every day after school and all his friends were trying out. He said no almost before I finished asking the question. Because he might not make the team. He might not excel on the team if he made it.

The thread that connects both incidents (and dozens of others over the course of the week) is this: my son is a perfectionist. If he can’t do something perfectly, he won’t do it at all. On the surface, perfectionist may sound like a good thing. It speaks to motivation and drive and ambition. Beneath the surface, however, perfect is a double-edged sword. Perfectionism is often problematic. It’s an endless loop of imposing unrealistic expectations on himself and endless criticism when he can’t meet those expectations—because perfect is an impossible standard to meet.

It means often he watches rather than participates, quits rather than tries. It means in striving for perfection, he’s missing out on life.

Experts define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” When left unaddressed, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and a variety of other health problems that my mama heart wants to protect my son from.

Perfectionism Is On The Rise

Studies have shown that perfectionism is on the rise in kids and young adults. By the time kids reach adolescence, approximately 25-30 percent of them have “maladaptive perfectionism,” meaning seeking a kind of impossible perfection that causes pain. An even greater number of kids grow up with a different kind of perfectionism—fortunately one that’s less harmful, but still a risk factor for future mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.

A number of factors can cause perfectionism. One is genetics. According to Gordon Flett, Ph.D., the director of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research at York University and a leading authority in this field, perfectionism is heritable. (Let me give my mom guilt a moment to breathe here—those are my genes. I’m a perfectionist. I have been for as long as I can remember. I’ve learned to actively quiet the part of me that imposes a standard on myself I would never require of anyone else in my life, but that part of me is still there.)

Other factors include society and social media. Kids can feel “shame and embarrassment if they weren’t keeping up with the pack,” Dr. Flett said in an article for the New York Times.

How To Help

Understanding perfectionism and why it arises is important, but the real question is—what can I do? How can I teach my son to quiet the part of him that demands either perfection or avoidance? How can I encourage him to try, even if it means failing?

My words often land on unhearing ears. I tell him that his teacher just wants to know he tried on his homework. I remind him the goal of the basketball team is to have fun. More than all of that, I emphasize how proud I am of all the things he is and does and point them out in real-time as often as I can.

It doesn’t matter. He’s still holding back.

Dunya Poltorak, Ph.D., a pediatric and young-adult medical psychologist in private practice has this advice for parents of children with perfectionist tendencies, particularly when those perfectionist tendencies are spiraling. She says—be there. Be present.

“Their feelings are so big in that moment, if you try to jump in, then they feel unheard.”

After the storm of feelings, she suggests talking. Let your child know whatever perceived failure they’re upset about isn’t their fault. It happens to everyone. Likewise, Dr. Porges, head of the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania suggests opening up to your child and giving examples of times you’ve made mistakes or struggled and how you overcame those moments.

“It’s about being vulnerable with our kids in ways we don’t typically think to be,” she said.

For my son, I expect the road ahead will be bumpy. Quieting the part of you that demands perfect is difficult—I know from experience. I also know it can be done. With time and compassion.

My son is a perfectionist, but he’s also so much more. And he has too much life to live to let something like perfection stand in the way.

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