Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

October 23, 2023

Challenging Perfectionism with Kids and Teens

             By Rhea Lourens, MA, LCMHCA

Perfectionism, often defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect, is not only prevalent among adults but children and teenagers as well. Whether it may concern schoolwork, athletic performance, artistic ability, or accomplishing goals, many kids tend to act overly critical towards themselves and forget to leave room for grace and self-compassion. As someone who worked with kids and teenagers in a mental health setting, I observed perfectionism spread into many aspects of these children’s lives, ranging from how they looked in the mirror to how they drew a picture during art therapy.

  How might signs of perfectionism look in your child? Some examples include:

  • Frequently not being able to decide what to wear
  • Constantly asking others to check their work before submitting it
  • Constantly looking over work even after having checked it multiple times for mistakes
  • Giving up or quitting activities too soon because they are making (very reasonable) mistakes
  • Putting off homework assignments due to fear of failure
  • Not letting others do tasks because they only trust themselves to do it correctly
  • Arguing a point over and over, long after others have lost interest
  • Repeatedly looking in the mirror for facial blemishes

As parents and caregivers, it can be difficult to watch our children be so harsh on themselves when we can clearly see their talents and potential! It is also so important for children to know that mistakes, flaws, and imperfections are a normal part of life and make us the unique individuals we are. Here are some of the ways I have encouraged children and teens to challenge their perfectionism- these are activities you can try together at home, as well!

  1. Find something in the room or an image online and draw it with your non-dominant hand. Do not use your eraser or redo it. Instead, practice making mistakes and sitting with the fact that your picture may not look exactly the way you envisioned, but it’s okay! An alternative activity is writing out the alphabet with your non-dominant hand.
  2. Rip up a bunch of paper into different sizes and shapes of scraps. Grab some glue and use those scraps to create an image on another piece of paper. Let mismatched edges connect, be abstract, and learn how to have fun with mess!
  3. Get a balloon! Have your child state a self-critical or negative thought they’ve had, then tell them to “blow it into the balloon”. Have them let the negative thought go by letting the balloon go, then ask them to replace that negative thought with an affirmation or positive self-talk such as “I’m doing my best”.
  4. Create a self-care calendar! Use any type of calendar and designate days/times that you and your child will dedicate to a fun and/or relaxing activity. Make sure to commit to this activity and don’t let work, school, or other responsibilities get in the way!

And as always, make sure to reach out for support if you feel your child’s perfectionistic habits are beginning to interfere with their mental health or daily life. There are many types of therapy approaches that can help children learn to feel more comfortable with mistakes and give themselves more positive self-esteem and compassion!