I picked up “Letting Go Of Perfect: Overcoming Perfectionism in Kids” by Adelson and Wilson at the NAGC in November and have finally had the chance to read it. What spurred me on was a breakthrough that I made with one of my students where I finally recognized that the behavior that pointed to all sorts of other possibilities (ADHD for one) were actually rooted in some pretty intense perfectionism. Now that I look back, it feels so obvious but the sabotaging got explained away by a lack of impulse control and the outbursts were linked to over sensitivities.
What helped me see it? Three years of teamwork and a group of students who demonstrated a huge amount of trust and said “we will follow you down this road and see where it takes us.” The results, though painstakingly achieved, were amazing. Time and trust, two things that aren’t always available in our classrooms when we have so much to cover and we want things to proceed in a certain time frame and way. So what happens to the student who has a pretty amazing concept in their head that they never get a chance to share?
The book “Letting Go of Perfect” is a pretty accessible read and has some good strategies for both teachers and parents in how to help their child overcome perfectionism. They also go about debunking some of the myths around perfectionism, which I believe are very important to share.
Myth 1: Perfectionism is always bad for children. Not so. Healthy perfectionism is when we set high yet realistic standards, unhealthy is when we set unrealistic stands. It’s healthy when we gain pleasure from working hard but not so much so when we are unsatisfied with high levels of effort. It can be healthy when the motivation is based on personal standards as opposed to being based on external evaluations of the product. Healthy perfectionists tend to be conscientious while unhealthy perfectionism contributes to low self-esteem.
Myth 2: Only gifted children are perfectionists. Perfectionism is found in all populations of students, in fact, studies show that gifted students may suffer from it less. However, academically gifted perfectionists are often more likely to catch the attention of teachers.
Myth 3: No one knows why some children are perfectionists. Research shows that there are many links: dichotomous thinking, birth order, perfectionist parents, parenting style and inconsistent or non-existent approval from parents.
Myth 4: There are no ways to identify perfectionism. There are a variety of checklists available, several in this book.
Myth 5: Adults cannot do anything to help young perfectionists. Some psychologists work with children using cognitive behavior therapy. With younger children play therapy can be helpful in working through negative themes and providing coping skills to deal with mistakes and criticism. The development of coping resources is important: social confidence, behavior control, academic confidence, peer acceptance and family support are all important aspects of this.
Myth 6: There is only one type of perfectionist. The book explores several types of perfectionists and offers different strategies for each. Perfectionists can come in the form of academic achievers, aggravated accuracy assessors, risk evaders, controlling image managers and procrastinators. As you can see, some of the behaviors could easily throw us off track. I have seen risk evaders and procrastinators identified as “lazy”.
Myth 7: Perfectionism is not really harmful for children. “Unhealthy perfectionism should not be taken lightly by parents or teachers. Although symptoms may seem minor in early childhood, these behaviors may escalate throughout the years and lead to more serious psychological consequences. These consequences may include anxiety, depression [suicide] and eating disorders.” p.25, Letting Go of Perfect, Adelson and Wilson, Prufrock Press, 2009.
If you are seeing perfectionism in your child or students, this book is worth a read.