Perfectionism in Gifted Kids

Helping Gifted Children Reduce Stress and Enjoy Success

Gifted children can be taught to harness their drive to succeed in healthy, productive ways that make both their lives, and their parent’s lives less stressful.

Most folks know an “A” type person – someone who is a high achieving, almost fixated (and sometimes quite definitely) on perfectionism to the point of obsession. When the perfectionist in your life is a child, though, it can be difficult to know what to do.

On the one hand, it’s natural to want to encourage success. On the other, it can be heartbreaking to see how the perfectionist child sometimes handles (or, more problematically, doesn’t handle) failure.

Perfectionism is Innate

Psychologists explain the “Perfectionist Child” is often gifted, although that’s not always the case. Children can become perfectionists about any aspect of their lives or interests.

Dr. Steven Richfield, a psychologist, writes in an article called Help For The Perfectionist Child, “A popular misconception surrounding perfectionism is that it is [caused by] driven parents who push their children. …Even parents with high standards don’t “produce” perfectionism but may find their child interpreting their expectations this way.”

He notes that telling a perfectionist child to “do your best,” is often heard as “perform perfectly.” And that misinterpretation can have some pretty painful results for a well-meaning achiever. Perfectionist, high achieving children are often mocked and taunted by peers, even as they’re celebrated by teachers and parents. The mixed messages can be confusing.

Finding a Balance

Dr. Linda Silverman, of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado, suggests celebrating perfectionism in our children while helping them seek an inner balance in handling their innate drive to succeed.

Perfectionism, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, says Silverman. Perfectionists are in the good company of the likes of Michelangelo and Mare Curie. Perfectionism, “just is,” she said. It’s part of a gifted person’s life equipment. The trick, she says, is to teach children to harness their perfectionism to work for them, instead of being controlled by it.

Harnessing Perfectionism

Dr. Silverman’s coping tips for perfectionists, adapted for the parents of perfectionists include:

  • Help a child appreciate his or her perfectionism.
  • Teach perfectionist children to set priorities for themselves, to help them differentiate between activities that might benefit from perfectionism and those where it doesn’t matter.
  • Support perfectionist children in maintaining high standards themselves, but teach them the importance of not imposing those same standards on others.
  • Help the perfectionist child keep striving even when first attempts at something are unsuccessful.
  • Don’t let a perfectionist child punish herself or himself for failing. Help a child focus his or her energies on future successes.
  • And most importantly, help a child hold onto his or her ideals and believe in his or her ability to reach them!

Supporting and working with perfectionist children to help them achieve a balanced understanding of the world and their place in it can help them reach their full potential using their innate perfectionism as a joyful asset, instead of a frustrating liability.