Perfectionism and high learning potential can, unfortunately, be an alarmingly snug fit. Up and down the land, parents of children with high learning potential will attest to this with a worn-out sigh and a knowing eye roll; little wonder, when you consider the situation in which many high learning potential children can find themselves. When it can be the norm to find many or most tasks very easy, even with little or no effort, then what may follow is an expectation of that kind of perfection in all that they do, often to a point of refusing to even attempt a task if they fear that they cannot achieve it to the point of excellence.
Without an easily accessible set of true peers against whom they can meaningfully gauge their work, then they also have less chance of developing a healthy perspective regarding reasonable expectations. Add into the mix an intensity of emotion and an often extreme level of creativity and imagination, and you can have a child who can picture in high definition the perfection that they require of themselves, and will feel the blow of perceived failure most deeply. There, alas, stand the elements that can so easily produce the perfect storm for perfectionism. There are, however, many ways to guide a child away from these perfectionistic pitfalls, towards a much healthier and happier perspective.
Is Perfectionism Really All That Bad?
Not all types of perfectionism are created equal. If, by perfectionism, one means the pursuit of excellence; the setting of high, yet realistic, standards for oneself and always trying to do one’s best, then perfectionism can be an incredibly good thing indeed. There is no beef with this flavour of perfectionism. When, however, perfectionism becomes problematic, when it demands the unattainable and renders a child’s sense of worth dependent upon this impossible achievement of excellence in all things, then it is undoubtedly of the unwelcome variety. Fear of failure and a refusal to try anything without an inbuilt guarantee of success, rather than the pursuit of achievable excellence, works against your child and their wellbeing, and may be the kind of perfectionism that could require a degree of intervention.
Ten Top Tips to Support a Child with Perfectionistic Tendencies
- Appropriate Challenge
The gold standard in guarding against perfectionistic tendencies is providing a child with high learning potential with appropriate challenge. This allows for the building of learning resilience and a perspective shift towards focusing on the process, the effort, and the hard work, rather than solely on the end result.
Advocating for appropriate challenge at school may be necessary, to enable the child to work at a level just beyond their comfort zone. Challenge can also be provided at home in all sorts of different ways, such as supporting them to access appropriate-level lessons, lectures, or courses in their current areas of interest or introducing them to areas entirely new to them.
- Embracing Ambiguity
As well as providing more opportunities for challenge, it can also be of great use, in the fight against perfectionism, for children to take part in discussions, debates, and philosophical thinking exercises. These help to steer a progression towards an acceptance of ambiguity and the absence of clear cut answers, which can go a very long way in defeating the stultifying effect of a perfectionistic desire for an unrealistic kind of unequivocal, clear cut correctness.
Perhaps ask them a daily stumper (take a look at our Thunks page or Plus Portal posts on social media for inspiration!), or dip into philosophy with books such as The Children’s Book of Philosophy, or Philosophy for Kids. It is also well worth taking a look at The Philosophy Man website for lots of P4C (Philosophy for Children) inspiration. Not only can such activities provide challenge, ambiguity, and help to develop an enjoyment of the process rather than just the end result, but they can also be super fun, and that is, of course, just as important!
- Try New Things
Support your child, enabling them to go outside of their comfort zone, by trying out new sports, games and hobbies (perhaps even try some of these together). Anything that builds upon a perspective change towards finding joy in the small steps forward achieved from practice; in finding the fun in trying and maybe even failing; in just giving things a go, without any reference at all to the end result, would be of use. Go gently, though, this is as uncomfortable as it is a foreign concept for them to begin with. Pushing too hard may be detrimental both to their wellbeing and to the whole point of the exercise in the first place.
- Praise Effort
When they are challenged; when they are trying these new things, and, in fact, in anything they do, be sure to praise their effort rather than only when the end results are excellent. In this way, you can be sure of being part of the solution and not part of the problem of perfectionism. Whilst there is nothing wrong with praising those big successes, even in their areas of excellence, which are the result of effort, be sure not to overlook their efforts in pursuits that they find more tricky or overpraise achievements in areas where no effort was required to get that result.
By praising their efforts in this way, you are encouraging a mindset that is positive, proactive and above all avoids self-recrimination, which are all key in defeating perfectionism. Carol Dweck’s concept of a Growth Mindset sets out just this kind of perspective. A child with high learning potential and perfectionism may well be experiencing the difficulties of what Dweck would consider to be a fixed mindset, whereby they see their self-worth as contingent upon constant confirmation of, and reassurance about, their intelligence. Dweck believes that this leads to a person only attempting tasks that they can be certain will be a confirmation of their intelligence, as their entire self-worth is dependent upon it. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is all about developing the kind of resilience that learns from failures; that provides the courage to try new things and understands the importance of hard work for achievement. Discouraging the kind of mindset that gets stuck in the past and is overly self-critical, and, rather, looking at what can be learned from the past whilst moving forward with a growth mindset, will be of great value.
- Support Them to Develop a SMART Plan
Prior ease of achievement gives absolutely no information on the “how” of how to succeed in the future. Support your child in building up those invaluable tools that will help them with that all-important “how”, by helping them to understand the process involved in any new undertaking, and to plan it in a way that circumvents any feeling of being overwhelmed. Key to this is the making of a SMART plan (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timeframe-provided).
Helping them to plan the process, to scaffold the endeavour, and to put in place much less daunting small steps, all heading towards a final end goal, can help them to overcome the all-or-nothing thinking that demands a guarantee of perfection or “no dice”. Building up these planning and scaffolding skills can be the key to avoiding underachievement due to dichotomous thinking.
Discuss with your child the need to have a reasonable idea of the end goal; one that demonstrates a healthy perspective as to what is (and is not) achievable, and also provides a concrete idea of what the goal is. There is little that is more certain to precipitate a confidence-breaking throwing in of the towel than a child with perfectionism issues, working towards an underdefined goal and yet demanding of themselves perfection. In such situations, they would be unable to identify that perfection even if they did achieve it, so it only ever serves to feed the self-defeating aspect of perfectionism.
Encouraging them to place a time limit on their project can also be of very great value. Their perfectionism might tempt them to research their topic ad infinitum (“it’s not good enough until I have read everything about x, y or z”), but this is not conducive to the completion of their project. Time limits on endeavours mean that it is much more likely to be finished: they may, indeed, want to go on forever, but that is neither feasible nor salutary; closure is what they need.
- Model Healthy Behaviours
As parents, modelling a fabulous nonchalance about making your own mistakes; embracing them without a hint of shame or embarrassment, and being sure to demonstrate positive self-talk, is a potent way of helping your child to overcome their perfectionism. There is little chance of a child defeating their own perfectionistic tendencies if they see their parents demanding unrealistic excellence of themselves.
Similarly, modelling positive self-care in a general sense; prioritising wellbeing, relaxation, as well as the need for silliness and fun, can all help to move minds away from restrictive and constrictive perfectionism.
It is also worth remembering that this attitude extends all the way into a parent’s perspective on their own parenting skills: it is important to accept that you are a “good enough” parent, who is doing their best. You won’t be able to protect your child from every negative emotion they may experience (and their resilience skills would not thank you for it even if you could!), but you can be there to help them to find their own ways of defeating the negative aspects of their perfectionism.
- Support Them to Develop a Resilience Toolbox
Supporting your child to come up with their own go-to strategies to help them deal with their emotions surrounding their perfectionism, and to help them to change their perspective, can make a huge difference. Not only does the feeling of having some weapons in the armoury to deal with the problem help, by giving a sense of agency and building up that all-important confidence, but the fact that the strategies have been chosen by your child themselves makes them even more likely to be effective. Not only will they be beautifully bespoke, but they have already been bought into by the future user; this is much better than being told by someone else what to do.
Their toolbox could be made up of all sorts: perhaps a few strategies for general wellbeing, like a calm place to go to when a de-stress is needed, or a favourite book or toy that brings comfort, alongside some books that can help them to deal with their difficult emotions. The Gifted Kids Workbook has some very good activities to help children with high learning potential to deal with a variety of issues, but also has a section dedicated to perfectionism, and the Mindful Kids series also has many great activities for children that can help with their perfectionism. Alongside these could be a drawing, cartoon, poem, or short story dedicated to whichever scientist, artist, politician, or other person inspires them to see that persistence is more powerful than perfectionism. There is, however, no limit to the type of things that can be thrown into the toolbox: if they feel that it will help, and as long as it is safe and appropriate, then there are no limits as to how weird and wonderful their strategies can be!
- Help Them to Find Their True Peers
When a child’s age-peers at school are not at same level of ability as they are, it removes that important capacity to use them as a meaningful gauge for their own progress and achievements. What is most dangerous about this is the void that it leaves. Who else do they have, then, to compare themselves to? Unfortunately, the answer very often is: the adults around them. Thus, their perfectionism is encouraged, as they see the abilities of adults and beat themselves up for not yet matching them all the way. As well as explaining about the amount of extra practice, grey hairs, and years on the clock that an adult has racked up, in order to have honed whatever skill it is that is the perfectionistic flash point, it can also be invaluable to seek out some true cognitive peers for your child. Then, they can see other children of similar abilities, and see that they are not, in fact, perfect; that they have strengths and weaknesses, too, and that even in areas of excellence, perfection is too much to expect.
Members can opt into our newsletter, Focus on Potential to be sure to find out about any events from Potential Plus UK or regional group activities, or hop onto our Facebook group (Parenting High Potential) to see if any families live near enough to meet up. There are also great online lessons for like minds run by Potential Plus UK under their vPlus banner, or from organisations like Thinker Meet Up, while Gift courses for secondary aged children can provide unforgettable memories and fast friendships with their intellectual peers. Online lessons on platforms such as Outschool may also provide your child with the opportunity to interact with meaningful peers. If they choose a subject that they love, at a level that will challenge them, then, even if they are younger than the other students attending the session (check with the teacher first should you wish to enrol them on a course that is aimed at older children), they are, at least, very likely to share an interest in that topic, and you never know, your child may not be the only one with an interest and expertise in the subject beyond their years.
It is also worth noting that there may be more than one type of peer for a high learning potential child. The above suggestions may suit their cognitive needs, but there may be other peers to be found at school in different age groups (older or younger), or those with similar hobbies or interests that are their peers in some ways, too. Having a flexible, mix and match approach can often be the best way to find a wonderfully eclectic collection of peers for a child with high learning potential.
- Look Out for Perfectionism Masquerading as Other Emotional Problems
Warning: it might not always look like classic perfectionism! Sometimes, the signs are overwhelmingly clear, and at other times perfectionism can present as something a little different, lurking behind many other issues. When it does, a parent may need to channel their inner Sherlock to get to the heart of things. Perhaps their child is overwhelmed by the suffering in the world? Whilst this is not uncommon for overexcitability-rich children with high learning potential at the best of times, garnering an understanding of whether there is an aspect of perfectionism in their sense of frustration that they can’t singlehandedly solve the suffering, is essential in supporting them effectively. Or perhaps their behaviour is deteriorating, there are more emotional outbursts than usual, or their anxiety is increasing? Perfectionism could be hiding deep at the heart of things. Reassure your child that you are there to support them, encourage them to open up a dialogue about what they are finding difficult, and help them to find ways to work through the issues.
- Enlist Eminence
It is not just Edison to whom a parent can refer when trying to turn around that tide of problematic perfectionism. As apt as it is to mention his statement that genius is “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”; as useful as it is to quote his famous “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, there are also many others to whom a parent can also turn.
The lives of so many eminent people tell the story of achievements through perseverance and perspiration, not perfection. Casually strew a book or two around the house that tell such stories, and see which ones strike a chord with your child. Whether it’s the Fantastically Great Women series by Kate Pankhurst, Stories for Kids Who Dare to Be Different by Ben Brooks, Super Scientists by Anne Blanchard or Brilliant Blunders by Mario Livio, they will tell stories that will open up conversations about perseverance, resilience, response to failure and the fact that even the very best can make colossal mistakes, so it’s okay to be in such distinguished company!
The kind of perfectionism experienced by high learning potential children can be a formidable foe. The situations in which a child with high learning potential can find themselves can provide the perfect conditions for perfectionism to flourish. The intensity and other characteristics common to high learning potential can further serve to feed this enemy. There are, however, many ways to support a child to overcome their perfectionistic tendencies, and to help them towards a much more positive, and productive, mindset. Whilst remembering, of course, to avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism as a parent, too, which not only helps yourself, but can also help your child, too!
To learn more about perfectionism and high learning potential children, please see our advice sheet PA604, Perfectionism and High Learning Potential Children
Many of the ways in which to address perfectionism discussed above tie into the Skills Builder categories of Staying Positive and Aiming High. For more information about the Skills Builder Framework and how it can help you and your child, visit their website https://www.skillsbuilder.org.
Remember, too, that there is further help out there, if needed. If you become concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, then discuss this with your GP, or visit the website Young Minds for further support and advice.
If you would like advice more specifically about the high learning potential aspect of your child’s perfectionism, then be aware of our advice line, where you can book 30 minute telephone appointments (free to members, £36 to non-members) to discuss any issues concerning your child with high learning potential with someone who “gets” what it is like to parent a high potential perfectionist. Contact 01908 646433 for more information.
Further Reading / Resources
- Skills Builder Partnership: https://www.skillsbuilder.org
- Young Minds: https://youngminds.org.uk/
- The Philosophy Man: https://www.thephilosophyman.com/
- Thinkers Meet Up: https://www.thinkersmeetup.com/
- Gift Courses: https://www.giftcourses.co.uk/
- Outschool: https://outschool.com
- Dweck, C. Mindset
- Distin, K. Gifted Children
- Tomley, S and Weeks, M. The Children’s Book of Philosophy
- White, D, Philosophy for Kids
- Boorman, H. The Gifted Kids Workbook
- Mindful Kids 6 Book Collection (Hello Happy, No Worries, Be Brave, Stay Strong, Be Green & Be Kind)
- Adelson, J.l. and Wilson, H.E. Letting Go of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids
- Pyryt, M. Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism: https://www.davidsongifted.org/search-database/entry/a10459
About the author: Caroline Hooton-Picard is an adviser for Potential Plus UK. She has a background in mental health, having worked for Suffolk Mind and also in private practice, and has a first class degree in Philosophy from the University of Essex. She also has a High Learning Potential daughter who keeps her very much on her toes!