If you think that your child is obsessed with achievement and that it’s affecting their academic performance and their health, you could be right.
The prevalence of ‘unhealthy’ perfectionism has increased over the past 30 years and continues to rise, says psychologist and researcher Dr Sarah Egan.
But what is perfectionism? and why is it harmful?
“Perfectionism is when you’re overly concerned about making mistakes. You may strive obsessively to reach a goal that may be unrealistic, and give in to feelings of failure and self-criticism if you don’t meet that goal,” Sarah explains.
“It can be about whatever’s important to you – sporting performance, appearance, academic performance, for example.”
She says that parents need to watch for signs of perfectionism in children because it’s linked with health issues like anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The good news is that clinical perfectionism can be successfully treated through cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT.
“But if you’re worried about your child, you don’t need to take them to face-to-face counselling. Over the past 10 years, researchers have developed some very good self-guided programs for young people that are available online.”
Sarah is a co-author of one such resource, Overcoming Perfectionism. Self-guided treatments have been shown to not only lower anxiety in teenagers, but also prevent the onset of eating disorders and depression.
How does perfectionism develop?
Perfectionism is a societal issue, Sarah explains, that is often caused when children are pushed to succeed from a young age.
“There’s a pressure heap that builds from early on. We see clinical perfectionism occurring in children from early primary-school age – particularly if their parents are perfectionists.”
Are girls more prone to perfectionism than boys?
“There’s no evidence to suggest a gender link, but the pressure of social media – the amount of ‘likes’ for an Instagram selfie, for example – has made many young women more obsessive about their appearance, and perfectionism is definitely a risk factor for eating disorders.”
Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Children who obsessively strive for the highest standards can suffer from burn-out (think child tennis prodigies), but perfectionism is also linked with procrastination. A child may continually postpone doing their homework, for example, to avoid mistakes and the risk of self-criticism and anxiety.
What parents can do about it
Parent-led approaches are vital, Sarah says.
“Parents can model a balanced approach. Show your child that it’s healthy to try hard, to strive for achievement, but that you’re still a good person if you don’t reach the pinnacle – that you’re more than just how well you do at achieving your goals.
“Another idea is for your child get involved in an activity in which they’ll develop new skills, while recognising they won’t reach the highest standard.
“This will help to instil a balanced approach to accomplishment. Just enjoying listening to music, rather than needing to play a musical instrument well. Having a balanced life and ensuring there’s down-time to relax.”
Keep up with new research
Psychologists have been studying perfectionism only since the 1990s. Interestingly, researchers are still to examine treatments for perfectionism that support academic achievement. However, schools are becoming increasingly aware of the problem, and, despite not attracting the research funding it deserves, clinical perfectionism is gaining attention.
“If we’re going to prevent later mental health problems and under-achievement due to perfectionism, we need to start interventions in childhood,” Sarah says.
“We also want young people to co-design the online intervention programs we develop for treating unhelpful perfectionism.”
Sarah and her PhD student Amy O’Brien are heavily involved in this field. Amy’s current study is further examining internet treatment for perfectionism, focusing on female teenagers who are concerned about their body shape, weight and eating habits.