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4 Questions to Identify Perfectionism in Your Child

By Debra Kissen

When we think of childhood, we often imagine the wonderful excitement of eating ice-cream on a warm day or playing with your favorite toy for hours.  We reminisce on the excitement of opening presents on birthdays and that carefree feeling nothing else matters but what’s right in front of you.  We consider worrying about the future an “adult” problem.  However, fear is common and often natural for young children to experience in their day-to-day lives.  Consider entering a world where there could be scary monsters lurking in the corners or the first day you went to school, away from your parents for maybe the first time.  While there are many children who can circumnavigate their world with ease, more and more children are experiencing anxiety than ever before.

When children grow up, they are taught many things- to walk, to read, to eat healthy.  Parents naturally focus on preparing their children for all their “firsts” in life.  In turn, it’s also natural for children to seek approval and praise for their accomplishments, from a toddler stacking legos and exclaiming, “Look what I did!” to a teenager proudly sharing an A on an exam.  We are hardwired to want others to feel good about what we’ve accomplished.  But for children with anxiety, this is often a double-edged sword.  Who wouldn’t love their child to achieve all As, become a star athlete, or become class president?  These are moments of pride and success that should be celebrated!  However, when a child becomes excessively worried about their performance or cannot handle making mistakes, the child may be experiencing perfectionism.

Perfectionism is like the current that moves in the direction of anxiety.  When lying underneath a child’s fears and worries, perfectionism can maintain and exacerbate anxiety and depression.  For children who experience perfectionism, tell-tale signs include anticipating and worrying about making mistakes, inability to handle setbacks, and giving up easily on tasks.  Other signs include

Signs of Perfectionism in Children 300x232 1

meltdowns when losing games, crying or tantrums in response to negative feedback, anger when taught a different problem-solving method, or refusal to start homework.  It is a moving goalpost that is never reached and a child never feeling “good enough.”  Perfectionism is often difficult to recognize since these behaviors are reinforced by well-meaning teachers and parents who may not realize the inner distress the child is experiencing.

One way to recognize perfectionism in your child is to answer the following questions to yourself to become acquainted with the features of perfectionism.  These questions are adapted from The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism (Kemp, 2021). 

The first question is, “Does my child have unrealistic expectations of themselves or high standards for their performance?”  Many perfectionistic children tend to have inflexible standards they must meet in order to feel satisfied with their performance.  However, this satisfaction is often short-lived because their performance is just not “good enough.”  These rigid beliefs are often as follows: “I can never make a mistake” or “I must always look good.”  

The second question is, “Does my child fear failure?”  Everyone experiences failure at some point.  For perfectionistic children, setbacks, human error, or simple forgetfulness can trigger feelings of failure because of their oversensitivity, attention bias, and rigid thinking.  For perfectionistic children, there are only two categories: Flawlessness or Failure.   Since any minor setback is not flawless, it is then grouped under the Failure category. 

The third question is, “Is my child self-critical?”  Children who are perfectionistic are often hard on themselves and worry about their performance or behavior.  They may feel guilty about making mistakes or seek reassurance to ensure they are doing the right thing.  Self-criticism can take the form of labeling (“I’m the worst”), emotional reasoning (“I feel anxious, so I must not be doing this right”), “should” statements, polarized thinking (“I always mess up”), personalization (“It must be my fault”), or mind-reading (“I said something stupid, so she must hate me”).

The fourth and last question is, “Does my child tend to avoid opportunities for failure?”  Many children who are perfectionists refuse to complete homework or procrastinate because they are frightened that they will not reach their high standards.  Others may spend too much time on work for fear of making careless mistakes.  If children are actively or passively trying to avoid experiencing failure, they are likely not engaging in growth experiences.

If you recognize some or all of these tendencies in your child, it may be important to have a conversation with your child on how they feel.  Remember: children who are perfectionistic struggle with receiving negative feedback, so they may likely feel emotionally overwhelmed if they perceive that their drive to be “perfect” is just another mistake on their list of blunders.  Working to show your child their emotions are valid can go a long way in having a positive conversation.  If you notice that your child is experiencing significant anxiety and perfectionism impeding their ability to function and enjoy life, seeking a therapist early on can help a child reduce their avoidance and become comfortable with themselves.  While no childhood is perfect, it is possible to find the beauty in the mess. 


Kemp, J (2021).  The ACT Workbook for Perfectionism: Build your best (imperfect) life using powerful acceptance and commitment therapy and self-compassion skills. New Harbinger Publications.

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)...

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