Jill L. Adelson, Ph.D., a research scientist at Duke TIP, and Hope E. Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of North Florida, are currently writing a second edition of their book, Letting Go of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids and Teens, published by Prufrock Press. To support that effort, they want to hear from you!
Go to https://tinyurl.com/TIPperfectionism to share your stories and/or advice about perfectionism. You could be chosen to be featured in the updated and revised book (and receive a free copy). Parents, educators, and students are welcome to participate.
Oftentimes, we hear parents and educators wishing that children and adolescents wouldn’t be perfectionists. We hear them question how their child or student could be “such a perfectionist” in one area and “so sloppy” or “not care” in another. These common issues shed light on the nature of perfectionism.
In this post, we would like to reframe the issue altogether. Rather than look at “perfectionism” as an overall trait or characteristic, we want to concentrate on perfectionistic behaviors or tendencies. In other words, we don’t view perfectionism as a constant state of being. Rather, we acknowledge that context comes into play regarding the degree to which someone demonstrates perfectionistic behaviors.
Moreover, perfectionistic behaviors are not all bad. After all, we want our surgeons to strive to do the absolute best possible job removing cancer, repairing a broken bone, or stitching a laceration. We want our tax accountants not to make mistakes in determining how much we owe or should be refunded. We want our pharmacists to accurately dispense the correct prescription in the correct amount. Perfectionistic behaviors may manifest in healthy and in unhealthy ways, and it is often when they are unhealthy that parents and educators become concerned or frustrated.
We’ve classified students’ perfectionistic behaviors into different “types” of perfectionism. These are not exclusive—people may demonstrate behaviors in more than one of these types, particularly depending on the situation. Again, context matters.
The following five types of perfectionism are from our book Letting Go of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids and Teens, published by Prufrock Press.
Academic Achievers primarily are characterized by high expectations for their academic performance, with a strong focus on external evaluations, such as grades. Academic Achievers are often emotionally upset with grades that are less than the highest performance levels. They may engage in dichotomous thinking—for example, equating an 89% on a spelling test with “failing.” They also often generalize poor performance on one assignment or in one class to their overall level of intelligence or self-worth—for example, “I got a B on my math homework; I must not be very smart.”
Aggravated Accuracy Assessors focus on mistakes and often spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to create “perfect” work. They often spend time on their homework to the detriment of other activities, such as socializing with friends and family, extracurriculars, and sleep.
Risk Evaders often will choose to disengage when faced with the possibility of not being successful or the best. For example, a high school student might choose to avoid Advanced Placement classes, hesitant they might not be able to achieve high grades in more challenging classes. At younger ages, Risk Evaders may avoid answering questions in class or completing assignments.
Controlling Image Managers focus on the perceptions of others and attempting to preserve the appearance of perfection or high levels of success. For instance, they might intentionally not study so that they can say they would have done well if they had just put in the effort. This easily can create conflicts with peers when students quit playing or “throw” games when it appears that they may lose.
Procrastinating Perfectionists often will delay beginning their work when faced with looming expectations and the fear of not meeting them. Children may fall into this profile’s behaviors as a way to avoid risk or preserve their image. If they wait until the last minute and then rush through their work, then they have an excuse for lesser quality. Other children may procrastinate due to anxiety, paralyzed by fear that their performance will not live up to their expectations.
As part of our continued work to support parents, educators, and children, we are updating and revising Letting Go of Perfect. We would love to hear your stories and advice.
Parents and Educators: What advice do you have for other parents and educators of children who are struggling with unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors? Is there a time that your child/student struggled with unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies? What helped them use their perfectionistic tendencies in a healthy way or stop their unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors?
Students: What is your advice to a younger student who is struggling with unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors? Is there a time an educator or parent helped you use your perfectionistic tendencies in a healthy way or stop your unhealthy perfectionistic behaviors?
Go to https://tinyurl.com/TIPperfectionism to share your stories and/or advice about perfectionism. You could be chosen to be featured in the updated and revised book (and receive a free copy).