In This Together

How to deal with perfectionism in your daughter
The suggestions in this article are only applicable if your daughter really is a perfectionist, so it is important at the start to outline what perfectionism is and what behaviours indicate perfectionism.

If your daughter:

  • wants to do well,
  • works hard and strives to improve,
  • worries about up-coming examinations and doing well,
  • is hard on herself when she doesn’t do well, and is miserable or frustrated when she doesn’t perform at her best,

these are great attributes and you have nothing to worry about! High standards are important, and those behaviours are signs that she cares about doing well, and understands that important achievements come from hard work. This is all great!

None of those attributes above signal perfectionism.

A perfectionist person might be seen to do the following, regularly and repeatedly:

  • Spend many hours on a task designed to be done in 20 minutes or so.
  • Agonise over every tiny detail of a task until everything is perfect; excessive checking and the like.
  • Start again if a little mistake is made – unable to accept the slightest flaw. Even the look of the document is important, whilst that will not be particularly important to the teacher.
  • Be unable to hand an assignment or piece of work in to the teacher unless they think it is perfect – she might prefer to get zero for a task than to hand in something less than perfect and get, say, 8 out of 10.
  • Be overly and unrealistically down on any mark less than perfect, or any constructive criticism from the teacher. Take the slightest less-good mark as a sign that they are a complete failure.
  • Be overly anxious and worried about examinations, reports, tests and assignments that they are incapable of a normal, healthy life.
  • Often procrastinating – unwilling to start something unless they know exactly how to do it perfectly.
  • Sometimes they actually give up easily – the goal of a perfect mark in a piece of work seems so daunting and impossible, they just give up very quickly – often before they start.

The above behaviours of perfectionists are actually symptoms of anxiety. A perfectionist is an anxious person – a person consumed by their own inadequacies, worried about what other people will think of them.

So, here are some thing you can do:

1. Show that you are accepting of mistakes which your daughter makes. If she brings home a piece of work to show you, upset by a mark which was less than what she wanted, or with a critical comment from the teacher, or whatever, look for the positive things in the work. Praise those behaviours you want to reward – like the effort to get it done; about how you value the good things in the work; that you think she has done a good job; and you are proud of her even if the mark isn’t perfect. You love her for who she is, not for her marks.
2. Normalise mistakes. You will help your daughter be accepting of her own mistakes if you help her to see that others (including you yourself) make mistakes, that it is part of being human, and that people are OK with making mistakes from time to time. It is good to quietly observe when others make mistakes. It’s good to reinforce that you see mistakes as opportunities to learn.
3. Make sure your rules reinforce good, non-perfectionist behaviour. For example, don’t let her stay up all night getting everything perfect on an assignment or project. Have a “homework time is over” rule, and stick to it. When enforcing that rule, make it clear that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. Of course she could do a better job on an assignment if there were 28 hours in the day! But there aren’t. And so she can only do as much as she can in the available time. Balance in life is important, good sleep is important too, as is a good social life and positive family time. So say quietly: “Homework time is over now. I know you haven’t finished, but your teacher will be happy with what you have done so far. It’s time for bed now”.
4. If your daughter is panicking over work and her inability to do it, talk quietly to her, giving calm coping statements like: “You are doing fine, darling”, “Let’s just stop for a minute and collect our thoughts”; “We love you whether you do well in your maths test or not”. “Let’s take a break while you are panicking. You can’t think straight in that state of mind. We will come back to it after a little break”. Help her to breathe regularly and deeply. It would be a good idea to do something else – have a shower, go for a walk, and then come back to the work later.
5. Reinforce good behaviour. “It was great to see you persist, even when it got really hard”. “I noticed you kept calm and asked for help in a quiet voice. Well done”. Or “I noticed that you made a mistake but kept on going, rather than starting again. I am really proud of you for that”.
6. Praise effort, not grades. If your daughter thinks that getting really high marks is important to you, then she will focus on that. If she thinks that the effort she puts into something (within reason) is important to you, then she will focus on that. Effort is more important than the final mark.
7. Be patient. It takes a long while to help a teenager overcome unhelpful perfectionism. Being calm and accepting yourself is such an important first step, but it will take a long time until you start to see some improvement. So be patient!

If some of the symptoms of perfectionism are extreme, or if they persist for a long time, you could consult a specialist – talk to your daughter’s classroom teacher or Year Co-ordinator, one of our School Counsellors, or your GP. She may need more professional help.

Good luck and best wishes for the new term!

Jenny Allum
Head of School