Perfectionism: Why Children with Learning Challenges Struggle with Perfectionism
Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
In today’s society where high-stakes standardized testing, academic success, athletic prowess and excelling in the arts have become the bar for success, perfectionism is often seen as a desirable trait in a child. Sadly, perfectionism can be destructive to a child’s self-esteem, frustrating for family members, creates debilitating anxiety, and can cause students to underachieve, especially those children who struggle with learning challenges.
Recent studies show how damaging perfectionism can be in those children and teens who display these types of traits and it could potentially cause greater risks of suicide for children later in life. Many times perfectionism in a student produces a vicious cycle of them trying harder and harder to achieve those unrealistic goals and never feeling good about their efforts. They may experience constant disappointment with test results and scores, even though they are successful on many levels.
So why talk about perfectionism? We all know our children aren’t perfect and there are areas where they will struggle in more than others, even if they are the highest performing student in the classroom. The problem is not always the pressure we put on our children, but the pressure they put on themselves when it comes to homework and grades. All of the students we see on a daily basis struggle in one area or another. They often have gaps in learning and they recognize their imperfections as they compare themselves to other kids in their classroom. This problem usually affects their self-esteem and often discourages them so much that they lack the motivation to reach their potential.
One mother recently said her eight-year-old son struggles immensely with perfectionism. With great sadness, she described how her son has developed low self-esteem and displays anxiety in almost every situation. Perfectionism has consumed his life so much that he takes everything personally and feels like he is too stressed to do anything. He beats himself up if he gets a score or a grade lower than expected, even if everyone around him is singing his praises for the grade he received. Sadly, we are finding this more and more in children with learning challenges. Anxiety and anxiousness has crept into their emotional state, which hinders their performance even more in subjects they already struggle with at school.
Another 12-year-old girl deliberately fails at a subject or loses a competition if she feels she is out of her comfort zone. Any time she feels threatened in any way, in any situation, she creates the opportunity for failure. These situations are becoming more apparent in children because pressures are more extensive than what they used to be even just a few years ago. Parents are now trying to help their children cope with this type of anxiety and emotional instability on a daily basis along with other learning challenges. It can be discouraging for parents to watch such capable children, sometimes intentionally, set themselves up for failure.
Signs Your Child May Be a Perfectionist
If your child leans toward perfectionism, these are some of the signs you may see in their behavior:
- Sets unrealistic goals and then gets overwhelmed
- May feel like a failure when something does not go right
- Believes making a mistake is a sign of weakness
- Lives with rigid “should haves”
- Frequent inflexibility with schedules, getting projects or homework completed
- Irrational fear of failure
- Feels uncomfortable with criticism
- Dichotomous thinking or “all or none” thinking (for example, a project is either perfect or it’s worthless)
In many cases, perfectionists are unidentified gifted learners. These gifted students find their drive and intensity at odds with their environments. There is a fine line between striving to reach high standards of success and feeling self-defeated in the failure to reach unachievable goals. Many of our students walk this line. It’s where fear creeps in. Fear of failing. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of success and what happens next. Perfectionism isn’t really about being flawless; it is more rooted in fear. Parents are the key to helping a child manage this trait.
In a 2012 study, it describes the influence parents can have on children dealing with perfectionism. It lists many risk factors as well as positive ways that assist children in managing high performance standards for themselves.
To reduce anxiety in your child and to help them balance their perfectionism, try some of these methods at home:
Check your expectations
The child brings home a spelling test with 15 right out of 20. Mentioning, “What happened with the other five words?” may not be the best response for a child that gravitates towards being a perfectionist. The child may start interpreting that her parents will love her more if she gets 100 percent on tests. Try focusing on the positive achievements and skipping over the small mistakes.
Teach the child to not take things personally
This is easier said than done, I know. Students need to learn to separate their products (school work, tests, homework, projects) from their self-worth. They must grasp that an evaluation is just how their work matched up against a criteria. If the student is frustrated, allow these emotions. After a “cooling off” period, go over the criteria and why it is a valid score (if it is) then have the child give a suggestion on one way they could improve it next time. This shifts the focus off the worth of the child to viewable results.
Model Coping Skills
When the child is upset about not achieving an unreachable goal, acknowledge their feelings. Discuss the positive sides of the situation and what the child learned from working on a particular project or goal. If the child is constantly focused on the one mistake that he made, do not dismiss the idea or try and fix things for your child. Rather, validate their emotions and move on to a new topic.
Provide opportunities to succeed and to fail
When children are perfectionists, one of the most common things they do is resist new environments for fear of being judged by their mistakes. Fun games or play can be the antidote for this attitude. If exposed to many types of games, sports and fun experiences, the child can learn to have enjoyment even if they lose. Start with silly events or trivial games, and play often enough that the child has many opportunities to win and lose. Keep the conversation light and the feedback positive.
Enjoy the journey
A perfectionist’s life can be stressful. Help your child find a hobby that brings them joy. A delightful interest can create a diversion from all the seriousness and focus in the child’s life. Also, enjoy the journey yourself. Find a hobby and hone in on that talent. This will create balance not only for your life, but model a good example for your child.
Obviously, perfectionism is more than just a trait that many individuals seem to proclaim with pride. With this being said, perfectionism can be a good characteristic if managed correctly and the child can find balance. Being a perfectionist has value in many life endeavors. Governing this trait can lead to someone developing perseverance and innovation. Try to teach your child to embrace their perfectionist traits, but not let these attributes control their lives.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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