Diane Putnick's son Jackson was about 4 when she realized he was a perfectionist. During naptime, he reorganized the clothes in his closet by the colors of the rainbow. When she arrived to pick him up from preschool, Jackson would have a meltdown unless he could finish his project to the exact specifications he had planned.

"If you rushed him, it would make it worse because he wasn't doing it the way he wanted to," recalls Putnick, a government researcher who lives in Herndon.

Once Jackson started school, his drive to be perfect resulted in some anxiety behaviors, such as picking at his fingers and licking around his mouth. He refused after-school classes or lessons because of his fear of being judged or evaluated. His parents have learned to refer to extracurricular opportunities as "activities" or "clubs" so he is willing to try new things. "It really can be debilitating, and you don't want that to get in the way of him being happy and having a good school experience," Putnick says about her son, now 7.

What Is Perfectionism?

While compulsive organizing and attention to detail might seem like a positive thing to parents who despair at their child's messy room or lackadaisical attitude in school, perfectionism is actually classified as an anxiety disorder and can lead children to procrastinate, avoid fun activities or new experiences, develop low self-esteem and become chronically anxious or depressed.
"In the Washington area everybody strives, and often people think perfectionism is a good thing," says Mary Alvord, Ph.D., psychologist and director of Alvord Baker & Associates in Silver Spring and Rockville. "High achievement is really good; doing your best is really good. Perfectionism implies that it has to be perfect, which very few things are. It sets us up for being disappointed."

Signs of perfectionism in children include:

  • Taking too long to finish tasks,

  • Checking and rechecking work,

  • Being unable to tolerate a mistake,

  • Putting off beginning a task out of fear of failure,

  • Erupting emotionally during transitions or with frustration,

  • Displaying "all or nothing" thinking,

  • Making critical comments about themselves and their performance.

"Perfectionists tend to either avoid things, or they take way too much time doing them. You've got that pokiness and avoidance," Alvord says. "Are you always late because your child has to get something done just right?"

Anxiety and More

Perfectionism can also manifest as social anxiety, sleep problems or even stomach pain and headaches, especially in older children. Ultimately, the higher stress levels associated with any anxiety disorder can lead to other health problems. "If you got an A-minus and you studied really hard and you did your very best, but you perceive that you were awful, and you're stressed, then it affects your body because the mind and the body are completely tied together," she says.

Susan L., of Bethesda, hates to see her daughter Elyse, 8, struggle with perfectionism in school and her other activities. "She's frustrated and sad a lot of the time because she feels she's letting herself and everybody down. It's hard to watch your kid like that."

What can parents do?

Using cognitive behavioral therapy and drawing on research findings, psychologists, educators and parents can help children manage their perfectionist traits in a number of ways.

Remove the pressure. Relax the externally imposed pressure to perform. Make sure you're not overly critical or giving the unspoken message that your child must be perfect. Reevaluate your child's schedule and make sure it's aligned with his needs and temperament. "There are some kids who are so tired at the end of the school day, they need to come home, read a book, play with the dog, take a nap," says Laurie Dietzel, Ph.D., clinical neuropsychologist with Dietzel Butler & Associates in Silver Spring.

Model mistakes. You are your children's first teacher. So, the next time you miss an exit on the freeway or burn the dinner, instead of cursing and venting, consider it a learning opportunity. Share your thoughts out loud about your disappointment and how you're taking a deep breath to control your emotions. Then say what you plan to do next time to avoid a similar mistake. "You want to give the message that it's not a forever failure; next time you can learn from this and do it a little differently," Alvord says. "As a parent you want to make serious points but in playful ways: 'Oh my gosh, look what I did!' Even Mom or Dad makes mistakes, so it's not a catastrophe."

Focus on the process. The research of Stanford's Carol Dweck and others has shown parents the importance of praising the child's effort rather than performance. This holds double for perfectionists. "Even if he draws the most awesome, beautiful picture, we say, 'Oh you worked so hard on that,' " Putnick says. Anne F., of Washington, D.C., reminds her son of his previous successes, such as when he was so anxious about his first swim meet, but ended up conquering his fear and enjoying himself. Recalling past manageable challenges helps children envision themselves successfully tackling the hurdle in front of them.

Encourage them to try. Perfectionists often refuse to embark on a venture unless they're sure they will succeed. Alvord suggests framing a challenge as an experiment that the child can try. "Life is trying things out. That's how we learn," she says. For instance, you might tell a child who's afraid of public speaking, "Why don't you just do an experiment and look at one person in the class, and are they making horrible faces at you?" Children must learn to tolerate discomfort. The only way to overcome an anxiety is to face it.

Strive for excellence. Channel your child's drive into a quest for reasonable achievement rather than perfection. "If you strive for excellence, you can [accomplish] all you need to in a reasonable amount of time and still have friends and interests," Alvord says. "We want people to set high goals, but we want to make sure they're realistically achievable." If your child compares herself unfavorably to friends or classmates, note that the soccer star might not be great at writing, or the math whiz could be a klutz on the tennis court. Point out that not everyone is great at everything, and help your child develop and focus on her own gifts.

Teach self-calming techniques. Anne F. has taught her son to use guided meditation before a competition or to calm himself at bedtime. Help your child recognize his negative internal narratives and to challenge them. Talk through the worst-case scenarios with your child and help him question how likely they are to happen and how he'd be able to deal with them, Alvord says.

Even children who don't have a diagnosed anxiety disorder such as perfectionism can benefit from these techniques. "We have kids who are anxious off the walls, like we've never seen before," Dietzel says. "We have a nation full of these overly stressed, overly anxious kids. There are lots of kids who don't have disorders but they're so anxious and perfectionistic that they're exhausted all the time."

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, mother of three and volunteer with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. PEPparent.org