By Chris Jozefowicz, published on July 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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
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.
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.