Perfectionism and the Gifted Child

If I were to have an operation, I would want a surgeon whose skills were perfect. As a passenger on an airplane, I want to have a pilot who knows exactly what to do in any situation. We look for people at our workplace to be not only bright, but dedicated, with attention to detail. We applaud the student who studies hard, does excellent work, and is never a behavior problem.

One would think, then, that trying to be perfect is a highly desirable trait. Unfortunately, perfectionism can also have its downsides—especially for gifted students.

When Bryce was only three, he wanted to learn how to make his bed. He watched his mother carefully and was successfully able to replicate the process. However, if he couldn’t make it without a wrinkle, he would be very upset with himself. Bryce had a habit of taking his open hand and slowly moving it down his face, over and over again. He thought that if he kept making that movement, he would keep the tears from welling up in his eyes. When the young lad played his simple pieces on the piano, it was important to him to play them perfectly. If he made a mistake, his hand again would slowly start moving down his face. It was very upsetting to see him so stressed out. Finally, when Bryce was about eight, this need for perfectionism started to turn. When walking past his room, his mother noticed that everything was no longer put away just right. While many parents might call the child to the room and ask him to straighten it up, Bryce’s mother was secretly doing a little dance in her head. When Bryce chose a college, he rejected the possibility of a four-year fully paid music scholarship at one school to go to a more difficult school. A couple of months into his freshman year his parents asked him how it was going. He replied, “I’m the worst pianist here.” His mother’s heart sank as she said, “That must feel terrible.” His voice took on an enthusiastic tone as he boasted, “No. Not at all. It gives me something to work towards.” Over the years, Bryce had learned to change from a perfectionist to a person who strives for excellence. In other words, he set high goals and worked towards them, but didn’t get upset if he didn’t do as well as he hoped. He became realistic in his objectives.

Many young people who are perfectionists are consumed by fears, especially fears of social or academic failure. These children perceive themselves as failures, feeling they have not met either their own expectations (which are often unrealistic) or the expectations of others. They may feel that respect and love from others is conditional upon their performance. Every situation is “all or nothing,” “black or white.” They suffer from the illusion that they are expected and able to do their best at all times. Since there is little value in doing things they cannot do well, this perfectionism may turn into a paralyzing situation where they don’t even try.

When external pressures (either real or perceived) are exerted upon some children, results can be even more acute. These external pressures may include due dates, reward systems, and expectations for certain grades. While these pressures work to the advantage of many students, they may cause problems for students who are extremely sensitive.

Strategies to Help Perfectionists
  1. Discuss perfectionism, including its symptoms, causes and misconceptions.
  2. Share stories that show that mistakes can be used as learning tools. (Look at any book about inventors and you will find stories of people who failed many times for every success they experienced.)
  3. Help students determine the areas of their lives that they can control and those that are controlled by others and by chance.
  4. Incorporate goal setting and student evaluation into major facets of learning.
  5. Help students to self-evaluate, drawing attention to their strengths and accomplishments, and to reinforce progress they make toward goals.
  6. Be a good role model. Demonstrate that learning is a process of trial and error. Stay with problems for a reasonable amount of time, even if the problems are difficult. Admit all mistakes as an adult. Model imperfect behavior, personal evaluation, goal setting, reasonable risk taking, self-acceptance of your own imperfections and "off" days, and good listening and responding skills.
  7. Encourage and expect children to try new things.
  8. Help your young person look for realistic standards.
  9. If a child perceives that she has failed at something, wait until after the emotional tension is reduced before discussing the matter. This may help avoid defensive behaviors. Don't expect rational or logical thinking during the immediate stress period following defeat.
  10. Teach admiration as a strategy for handling jealously. Notice, admire, and communicate admiration to others. Acknowledge a family member when he treats another in a positive manner. When playing games together, voice appreciation for the skill used in a particular move rather than being upset that the person is beating you.
There are some excellent books available on perfectionism, including

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