The Young and Anxious

When parents pack their kids off to elementary school each fall, they're sure to monitor certain aspects of their offsprings' progress. Are lunches packed? Is the homework done? But here's one thing they may not ask: Is my kid sacrificing mental health in pursuit of that A+?

Research suggests that perfectionism, that familiar bugbear of the harried adult professional, may take root in young children. Such anxious, stressed-out kids may run the risk of developing an anxiety disorder as they grow older.

Patricia DiBartolo, associate professor of psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and student research associate, Vanessa Grover, studied 36 kids in grades 3 through 5. They rated the children as high or low in perfectionism, and tested them with a series of computer exams. They found that the children categorized as perfectionists were more anxious and dissatisfied with their exam performance than were their peers who rated low in perfectionism.

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DiBartolo says an important feature of the perfectionist kids is that they were "emotionally invested in not making mistakes." As a result, it didn't matter how difficult the exams were—the high-perfectionism group always expected to do worse, even though both groups performed equally well on the tests.

DiBartolo suggests perfectionist kids may get caught in a vicious cycle—they feel less able to succeed, become anxious and risk faring poorly on exams. It doesn't help that schools often provoke perfectionist tendencies, with honor rolls and high-stakes testing.

So what's a parent to do? Although DiBartolo says it is not clear whether perfectionism causes anxiety disorders—she calls it a "chicken-and-egg problem"—helping children cope is still a worthwhile goal. She suggests parents and teachers help kids focus on learning as a process rather than only praising good performance. If perfectionist behavior becomes debilitating, a mental health professional with child and adolescent experience can help.

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