The Moment of Youth

Helping teens believe in themselves

Two Faces of Perfectionism

Can getting it right undermine kid's success and mental health?

On the surface, striving for perfection in the things we do is a good thing. It helps us plan, organize, strategize and achieve goals. But there is a flip side to perfectionism that can harm children and teens as they journey through their school years. How should parents and educators help kids understand their perfectionist tendencies so that doing their best doesn’t drag them down? 

I recently received some fascinating and divisive feedback to an article I wrote, Are you Raising a Perfectionist?  In it, I outlined how to spot the signs that a child may be a perfectionist and offered ways parents can help kids avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism. 

What are the pitfalls? Research shows that perfectionism can cause the following: 

  • Low achievement.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Reduced feelings of self-worth. 

Of course, perfectionism can also lead to great accomplishments, persistence, and innovation! So how do kids find that healthy balance – a path that allows them to do their best and maintain good mental health? 

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In several LinkedIn groups, there was disagreement on the strengths and weaknesses that perfectionism brings and personal stories related to the topic.* 

For example, Tim shared how he suffered throughout his school years as a perfectionist, always being a procrastinator and underachiever. He had a fear of being ridiculed and thought he was the only one who wasn’t perfect. 

What transformed his life? Coaching. 

Through his work with adult mentors, Tim finally came to understand his perfectionism. It was that understanding that improved his emotional well-being and achievement. 

Later in the conversation, Tim admitted to being gifted. And indeed, many very bright and gifted individuals are perfectionists. This includes children with learning disabilities. But perfectionism isn’t limited to the gifted. 

Tim used to see pictures of perfection in his mind, and then wonder why he couldn’t achieve them. He was frustrated that his hands couldn’t keep up with his thinking processes. In trigonometry, his favorite class, he would feel crushed and defeated by simple math errors. Had he understood his perfectionism as a high school student, he believes he would have made greater strides. 

Perfectionism can be a gift when properly understood. But like other personality traits, it can also hinder success. 

Perfection vs. Imperfection 

Two viewpoints emerged in discussions on LinkedIn. One group of people seemed insulted with the idea than anything less than perfect was an acceptable goal. The other group saw imperfection as an important attribute. 

Imperfection as a Gift 

Perry said, “The six ways to help a perfectionist child are spot on and in my opinion should be applied to all children, particularly those on the other side of the perfectionist scale — those children who do not set high standards for themselves. My take on perfectionism is that we are all perfectly imperfect. I wholeheartedly believe that process trumps outcome.” 

John agreed, “It's our imperfections that make us interesting people. Mistakes are part of our personal story and that story is the most valuable asset we own.” The article, Learning from Mistakes: Helping Kids See the Good Side of Getting Things Wrong, supports John’s statement and outlines ten ways parents can help kids learn from mistakes. 

“What is important for children to understand,” said Nancy, “is that perfection is not possible on the outside. But it is achievable inside, when we feel we are at our best, peaceful, joyful, open, generous, altruist, present (self) doing exactly what the situation requires at the best of our knowledge. This is perfection.” 

Perfectionism as a Gift 

“Perfectionism means having high standards and being excellent,” says Jackie, a mother of two gifted children. “It’s not something for others to decide to remold… How presumptuous!” Jackie believes that helping kids “balance their perfectionism is insidious, undermining, and potentially damaging.” 

Mary agrees. “Aiming for 80% is fine, if you don't care where the child gets in to college…. Perfection is the standard in a lot of fields. Nobody wants a pilot who lands the plane successfully 80% of the time, or a programmer with 11% bugs in the app, or an OB who drops twenty babies out of every hundred on the floor.” 

“Aiming for perfection in what you do, claimed Robert, is a desirable goal, though not always attainable, and not always the correct goal…. In so many human endeavors, perfectionism is crucial for desirable outcomes; seldom does the pursuit of mediocrity accomplish more than the mediocre.” 

Striking a Healthy Balance 

Like many issues where people disagree, there were kernels of wisdom in each person’s opinions about perfectionism.  Whether you fall in one camp or the other, achieving healthy attitudes about perfection and success can help improve kids’ lives. 

Like Tim suggested in his own journey with perfectionism, self-esteem and achievement can be improved when young people understand their perfectionism.  To foster that understanding, many teens need mentoring from parents and teachers.   

Perhaps Kevin contributed the wisest advice of all — we need to help learners manage their own learning environment. Rather than using intelligence (IQ) or emotional intelligence (EQ), he suggests an alternative — learning intelligence (LQ). As Kevin explained, LQ “is the measure of how successful learners are at meeting their learning needs.” 

Personally, I’m intrigued with the idea of LQ and I was interested to read more of Kevin’s work at the Advocating Creativity in Education website. 

But support for Kevin’s ideas were not particularly welcomed or understood by Jackie who is frustrated by an educational system that doesn’t work for her perfectionist kids. Long discussions about this continue as I write! 

How do you see perfectionism? Is it a strength, weakness, or somewhere in between? Do you have personal experiences as a child or teenager that have given you wisdom about striving for perfection?

*To protect anonymity, names of all LinkedIn participants to this conversation were changed, except for Kevin who gave permission to use his name and website link.

©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Get her free e-Book, Reframing Success: Helping Children & Teens Grow from the Inside Out. Follow Marilyn at ROOTS OF ACTION, TWITTER, or FACEBOOK. 

Image Credit: Alexandra Roganova

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement.

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