Pint-sized perfectionists carry a painful burden and can cause parental anguish. As a teacher of gifted education with a master’s degree in gifted education, I have seen the perfectionist syndrome manifested in children many times. It can be a burden to a child and perhaps a parent. The National Association of Gifted Children  (NAGC) states:

“All perfectionism is not bad. Setting personal standards and pursuing excellence is important and healthy in many life situations. However, perfectionism can become unhealthy when it causes stress, pain, illness, procrastination, and underachievement.”

Worse it can limit opportunities and learning, as well as cause a child to feel unworthy. Parents may feel anxious or upset watching children limit themselves because they might think their work or efforts are simply not good enough. What can be done?

Gifted Children Can Be Perfectionists

Multi-talented children with multi-potentiality see the world as having unlimited possibilities. They feel others expect them to be good at everything, and to be able to produce excellent work. They could if they weren’t worried about not measuring up or even failing. Adults often are puzzled when the child doesn’t want to do something they may have done before, even many times. What is going on?

Many children reach a point where they expect too much of themselves. They may be pressuring themselves to be perfect. A mistake or failure is just too big a worry, so the child stops trying in certain areas.

There are helpful suggestions for parents on websites such as NAGC. I did a Google search, and there are many sites offering suggestions. The problem is not limited to gifted children, as many children feel pressure to perform and excel may be beyond their abilities. Parents compare the abilities of children routinely and if in earshot of young learners, it can have a negative impact. The gifted child just feels and thinks more deeply so the effect can be worse.

From my own teaching experience, I also have some suggestions. First, it is good when parents realize what is going on and do not simply think children are misbehaving. This is not a behavior issue under the child’s control. It is not being naughty. The child is caught in a stressful situation.

A sensitive and aware parent can understand what is going on and help the child out of the cycle.

  1. One thing that can help is to temporarily give the child projects such as art or other subjects that are kits where directions are followed for success. These are “closed” projects with one right answer, so to speak, and not kits with multiple ideas possible. I learned this from an art professor in college, and have seen this work in the lives of children. By giving work with definite right answers such as a paint by number kit, the child cannot go wrong. There is nothing that can be added by thinking or being smart. A coloring book can be simple, yes, but it offers a nicely finished page that is fine. It can be a relief to a child. Will this stage last forever? No, the child will get sick of not having any challenge or thinking required. The child will show when this stage is over by asking for more creative materials. At this point, art kits with different materials and different possible projects can be offered. The child will eventually want more challenge.
  2. Another thing that can help is to not praise the child for being smart, but for work effort. We learn this from Dr. Montessori and other educators. Deb Chitwood of Living Montessori Now says praising children can have the opposite effect. She says, ” Praise can make our children afraid to attempt new things, afraid of failure, afraid they won’t meet everyone’s expectations.” 
  3. So how do we praise children? Often adults jump in and interrupt the child who is still working to be kind and say something nice. Try to wait. Adults need to wait for the child to indicate he or she is satisfied with his or her own work, and offer sincere comments. Offer encouragement and comments about what the child did without saying the child is talented or smart.
  4. Rewards. Oh, my. This is a difficult area as parents are often in situations where they are limited by time or other constraints and need the child to be obedient or helpful. Sometimes rewards may be needed, but try to make these non-material. Time in the park, a family baseball game, or a visit to relatives or the library might be considered. Maybe read an extra book at bedtime or let a child stay up 15 minutes later than usual. When rewards are used, I think parents can be honest and say something like, “I know you don’t like shots and we have to see the doctor for a shot. I’m giving you this toy because I sympathize with you. I can’t give you toys all the time.” Offer rewards honestly and explain why you feel it is necessary without setting up an ongoing reward system, if possible.
  5. SENG (Social Emotional Needs of Gifted Children) is another source of information that can help parents understand more about what the child is going through and how to help. This page has specific and helpful information. They suggest the child should not be over-scheduled, for instance. However, your child may not be over-scheduled, of course. Read the websites to see what might apply to your own family and situation. SENG has conventions that welcome and have sessions for teachers, parents, and children.
  6. Perfectionists have their own self-evaluation system which is active at all times. Try to follow the child to learn what helps in individual situations. Following the child instead of using top-down management, the approach helps most children in most situations, anyway.

A question we sometimes ask ourselves is, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” We ask this in an attempt to calm ourselves with the idea that we might just have to start something over or try again. This is not a good question to ask a gifted child who will have numerous ideas about terrible outcomes! Put the focus on the work, not the child, and on reality — not possible worries.
Thank you for reading, Carolyn


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