Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism

By Pyryt, Michael C. | Parenting for High Potential, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism


Pyryt, Michael C., Parenting for High Potential


YES * Does your child pay more attention to mistakes than to correct answers?

YES * Does your child set unrealistic expectations for his or her work?

YES * Is your child dissatisfied with a Grade of A instead of A+?

YES * Does your child focus on unmet goals instead of enjoying current accomplishments?

YES * Does your child get extremely upset when anything in life doesn't work perfectly?

PERFECTIONISM

If you answered YES to any of these questions, your child may be at risk for becoming an unhealthy perfectionist. There is a fine line between striving to reach high standards of excellence and feeling self-defeated through the inability to reach unrealistic expectations of perfection. When that line is crossed, the perfectionistic tendencies become disabling. Others use perfectionism only when referring to the negative aspects of the syndrome. In schools, perfectionism can lead to underachievement. Outside of school, serious health problems are associated with perfectionism including abdominal pain, alcoholism, anorexia, bulimia, chronic depression, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. The problem of perfectionism is so prevalent among university students that many university counseling centers offer workshops in "Overcoming Perfectionism."

Perfectionism can also be thought of as a way of thinking. One aspect of perfectionistic thinking is dichotomous (all-or-none) thinking, in which a child believes that a project is either perfect or it is worthless. Sally, a ten year old, creates a science fair report that is among the best in her class. She comes home crying and tears the report up because the teacher found one typo in a six page report. Another component of perfectionistic thinking is transforming desires (Wants) into demands (Musts). Joe, an 11th grader wants to do well on mathematics portion of the SAT. This desire gets changed into believing that he must make an 800 (a perfect score) or he will feel like a failure. A third element of perfectionistic thinking is focusing on unmet goals and challenges rather than savoring successes. Ann, a sixth grader has read 9 of 10 short stories for her language arts project. Ann is likely to complete the project before anyone else in the class and two weeks before the project is due. Rather than feeling good about her excellent progress, Ann remains highly anxious because she still has one short story to read.

Perfectionists tend to come in many packages. Some perfectionists are intense and demanding from birth. They are never satisfied with their accomplishments and feel inadequate because there is room for improvement. For others, perfectionism is a learned behavior influenced by critical parents or teachers who verbalize when a child makes a 90%, "That's nice, what happened on the other 10%?" Some children expect everything they do to be perfect and everyone around them to treat them perfectly. These children want to have perfect breakfasts, perfect interactions on the playground, perfect feedback from teachers, and perfect performance on assignments and tests. Unless everything is perfect, they are disappointed. Others may only demand perfection when it comes to school work. Generally, the first signs of perfectionism will be evident in how children respond to competition ("I must be the best!") and how they respond to compliments ("It's nice of you to say that but I should have done much better."). For those who struggle with perfectionism, it is a life-long challenge. I believe that people can learn to cope effectively with perfectionistic tendencies, however.

As children struggle with perfectionism, parents may wonder, "Should I get professional help from a counselor or psychologist?" It really depends on the degree of perfectionism and the extent to which perfectionist tendencies are leading to other problems: obsessive-compulsive, panic attacks, eating disorders, or depression. Parents might want to begin by discussing their observations about their child's perfectionist tendencies with the child's teacher. …

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