The start of another school year brings with it a focus on achievement – in grades, athletics, and other activities. As parents, we naturally want to help our children reach their highest potential in these pursuits. Unfortunately, our increasingly competitive and achievement-oriented society tends to value and reward perfectionism. Although perfectionism is often hailed as a virtue, the pursuit of perfection can be detrimental to a child's overall development and well-being and can have long-term effects on their emotional and mental health.
Jennifer Breheny Wallace, a journalist and social commentator covering parenting trends for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, describes how children are feeling pressure from many areas in their life as follows, “[From] parents who just want what’s best for their kids; from teachers who are under their own pressures to hit certain standards; and schools both public and private that are under their own pressures to perform.”
Here are some of the ways perfectionism can negatively affect children:
Stress, Anxiety, Motivation: Setting unrealistic goals causes stress and anxiety in children. As these children strive to achieve unattainable levels of excellence, they may inadvertently set themselves up for repeated feelings of disappointment and self-criticism. Sometimes the drive for perfection can even work against children, causing them to procrastinate or not engage at all as the fear of failing is too great. Over time, these emotions can manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or disrupted sleep, compromising a child's overall health and well-being.
Relationships: The pursuit of perfectionism can also isolate children from their peers since they are consumed by their own expectations and self-criticism. Perfectionism can breed excessive social comparison and, as a result, children may have difficulty forming friendships and connecting with peers.
Self-Esteem: Perfectionists usually focus on end results instead of their efforts. Doing so negatively affects their self-esteem since it’s impossible for them to win every competition or ace every test. As Jennifer B. Wallace explains, “Where achievement becomes toxic is when we tangle up our entire sense of self and value with our achievements. When you have to achieve in order to matter.”
Their Future: Perfectionism can also continue into adulthood. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Addicted to Unhappiness, perfectionism can impact relationships, “As adults [they] tend to feel most comfortable in one-sided relationships in which they completely devote themselves to helping their friends or partners become more functional.” And their work-life balance, “If you are a perfectionist about work, you may find it difficult to call it a day and go home to your friends or family. Or you may bring your work home in order to keep improving it, with the result that you have little or no personal life.” They go on to explain, “Perfectionism is one of those manifestations of the addiction to unhappiness that is especially hard to conquer because the pain of believing you can and should be perfect can masquerade as the pleasure of virtue.”
But because children are feeling these pressures to be perfect from school, from peers, and family, what can parents do to encourage their children to do their best and reach their potential without having them fall into the trap of perfectionism? The most impactful way to do this is by fostering an environment that values your children beyond their achievements.
Focus on Meaning: From her research, Jennifer Breheny Wallace learned that kids who felt a deep sense of mattering, or “valued for who they were by their family, by their friends, and by their community” were what she called the “healthy strivers” or students who were able to achieve success in healthy ways. Find ways outside of academic or extracurricular achievements to let your kids know that they matter. Connecting over video games, movies, baking their favorite cake, or simply walking the dog together. Get curious and learn about what matters to your child.
Foster a Growth Mindset: Instead of focusing on end results like grades or test scores, focus on your child's effort, study habits, and strategies. This strengthens their agency over their learning as their efforts are truly the only thing within their control. Some things you can say are “You really focused on your math homework. I know that those problems were challenging. Great job sticking with it!”
It’s also helpful to remind your children of their progress and explain that intelligence is not finite. Draw upon their progress to highlight their growth and discuss and provide examples of your child's improvements. For example, you can say, “Remember when you struggled with learning your multiplication tables? But look at you now! At first you didn't know 2 x 2, but now look how many you have learned! You worked very hard.”
Embrace Mistakes: Encourage a healthy balance between reaching their full potential and understanding that mistakes are a natural part of learning. Try not to step in to prevent your child's mistakes. When children feel okay about making mistakes, they can approach learning as a process instead of as only achieving a certain result. But be sure to offer your support when requested, do not make children beg for help. The love and care you provide in moments like this will bolster their resilience and help them overcome obstacles.
Listen Without Judgment: Allow your children to express their emotions and fears related to their challenges. Try to see things from their point-of-view and communicate your understanding by validating their feelings - which strengthens their confidence. When they’ve had a challenging day, listen, and empathize, and then use your relationship to help them navigate past those sad feelings, such as suggesting a fun and comforting activity you can do together (for example, reading a good book, taking a walk together, playing a game, or doing another activity your child likes.)
For example, you can say, “I'm sorry you didn’t make the team, I know how badly you wanted that.” Then listen to everything they have to say. Once you feel like they are done expressing themselves, praise them for talking with you and invite them to an activity with you. “Thank you for sharing your feelings with me. I know how hard that can be when you don’t get what you want, even after you’ve put in a lot of effort. Would you like to bake cupcakes with me, and you can tell me more about it?”
Keeping these suggestions in mind can help foster the kind of resilience that children need to reach their potential in life while also avoiding the many negative consequences of pursuing perfectionism. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper describe, “Because they have acquired their own unshakeable inner happiness and sense of competence, they will make others happy and make the world a more secure and welcoming place.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Addicted to Unhappiness: A Step-by-Step Process to Achieve the Happiness You Deserve, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., McGraw-Hill, 2003.
How achievement pressure is crushing kids and what to do about it, The Harvard Gazette: Nation, Samantha Laine Perfas, September 11, 2023, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/09/how-achievement-pressure-is-crushing-kids-and-what-to-do-about-it