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How do you help the perfectionist student?

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

Have you watched your daughter pouring over a history essay for hours, only to refuse to submit it because she doesn't feel it's 'perfect' enough, despite her evident understanding of the subject?


Do you see your son assume control in group science projects, taking on the lion's share of the work, but when the project is due, it's unfinished because it didn't meet his exacting standards?


Or perhaps you've seen a student hesitate to try a new sport or activity at school, despite showing an interest, because they are afraid they won't be instantly good at it?


These scenarios are all too familiar in homes and classrooms around the world, as we grapple with the often crippling effects of perfectionism on our students.


Let's delve deeper into this phenomenon and its impact on academic and personal development, while also exploring practical strategies to support students with perfectionist tendencies.


The BIG Ideas

  • Perfectionism and ADHD are often intertwined, leading to overwhelming stress and fixation on minute details in students.


  • This high standard and fear of mistakes can hinder progress, causing students to "get stuck" and procrastinate.


  • Though challenging, there are effective strategies to help manage perfectionism, with parental guidance, educators' support, and executive function coaching playing crucial roles.


Does your child struggle with perfectionism?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Not sure

You can vote for more than one answer.

Where does perfectionism come from?

Perfectionism is often deeply ingrained, arising from an intricate mix of personality traits, parental influences, and societal norms.


Some individuals have inherent personality traits, such as high conscientiousness, that make them more inclined towards perfectionism.


Parenting styles

Parenting styles also play a critical role. High parental expectations or harsh criticism can unwittingly encourage perfectionist tendencies, while balanced expectations and healthy attitudes towards failure can foster resilience and realistic self-assessment.


For example, imagine a family with two brothers, the older one, Jake, consistently brings home good grades and is praised for his academic diligence.


His younger brother, Max, however, struggles with maintaining focus on his schoolwork due to his ADHD, resulting in lower grades.


One evening, after seeing Max's report card, their father sighs and remarks, "Max, why can't you be more like Jake? Just sit down and get your work done."


In this scenario, Max might feel that he needs to emulate his brother's academic performance to earn his father's approval, disregarding the unique challenges he faces with ADHD.


This situation could potentially foster perfectionism in Max, as he strives to meet a standard that doesn't account for his personal circumstances.


Cultural influences

Cultural and societal influences are other potent factors. Societies that place a premium on success and achievement can generate pressures towards perfectionism.


In the era of social media, the tendency to compare oneself to others' curated, idealized lives can exacerbate perfectionist tendencies.


Individual experiences, whether they be instances of criticism, failure, or even success, can also shape the perfectionist mindset.


Past negative experiences might drive individuals to seek perfection as a means of avoidance, while constant affirmation for high achievement might make individuals equate their value or acceptance with flawless performance.


Lastly, while still a subject of ongoing research, some evidence suggests there may be genetic predispositions to perfectionism.


Understanding these factors can equip us with effective strategies to manage and moderate perfectionist tendencies, fostering a healthier attitude towards achievement and self-worth.


ADHD and perfectionism

The relationship between ADHD and perfectionism can be complex and nuanced. A study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders titled "The Complexities of ADHD and Perfectionism" noted that "Participants with ADHD reported higher levels of maladaptive perfectionism and neuroticism and lower levels of self-esteem and adaptive perfectionism." Furthermore, clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas E. Brown has noted that many individuals with ADHD grapple with a form of perfectionism that can cause them to delay or avoid tasks unless they can do them perfectly: "...When they do manage to get started on something, they may insist on an all-or-nothing effort. If they can't do it perfectly, they don't want to do it at all."


-Dr. Thomas E. Brown Even more troubling, another study concluded: "Our results indicate that a low level of perfectionism, in particular ‘Personal standards’, may be a risk factor for suicidal behavior in adolescents with ADHD."

Understanding the intricate interplay between ADHD and perfectionism is crucial for providing appropriate and individualized support.


What can parents do to support their children with perfectionism?

Supporting a child who grapples with perfectionism requires understanding and patience. Let's take a look at how parents can put this into practice.


Let's consider 12-year-old Amina who is always concerned about her academic performance. One day, she comes home distressed because she received a B+ on a test.


Noticing her distress, her mother, Fatima, sits down with her and gently says:


"Amina, we are so proud of the effort you put into studying for your test. A "B+" is a great grade, and it shows your hard work. Remember, it's not just about getting perfect scores, but about learning and improving."

In another situation, Amina's father, Hassan, encourages her to participate in a community storytelling contest.


Amina hesitates, fearing she won't be good enough. Hassan reassures her, "Taking part in new experiences helps us grow, Amina. Winning isn't everything. You learn so much just by participating. You know, when I first started my own business, there were many mistakes, but every mistake was a lesson. Don't fear them."


By sharing his own experiences of learning from failure, Hassan normalizes the process of making mistakes and highlights the value of healthy risk-taking.


Through these interactions, Amina's parents are helping her understand the value of effort and personal growth, reinforcing that they love and support her unconditionally, and that it's okay not to be perfect.


By modeling these attitudes and reinforcing them consistently, parents can guide their children to manage perfectionism more effectively.


What should parents NOT do if their child is a perfectionist?

As parents, while dealing with a child who has perfectionistic tendencies, it's essential to be mindful of certain behaviors that can inadvertently exacerbate the issue.


Here are some crucial 'don'ts' to remember:

  • Don't set unrealistically high expectations.

  • Don't criticize or punish for mistakes.

  • Don't compare your child to others.

  • Don't overemphasize achievement and success.

  • Don't take over tasks to ensure a perfect result.

  • Don't ignore signs of stress or burnout.

By avoiding these actions, parents can help create an environment that encourages personal growth and effort, rather than fuelling perfectionism.


How can executive function coaching help a student with perfectionism?

Executive function coaching can be particularly beneficial for a student grappling with perfectionism.


Executive functions are cognitive processes that allow us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.


For students with perfectionism, struggles often arise from their high standards and fear of making mistakes, which can lead to procrastination, excessive time on tasks, and in severe cases, avoidance of tasks altogether.


Executive function coaching can help in the following ways:


Building Organizational Skills

Coaches can assist students in developing strategies for organizing their work and time more effectively. This can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed, and give students more control over their tasks.


Developing Task Initiation

Perfectionists often struggle with beginning tasks due to fear of making mistakes. Executive function coaches can work with students on strategies to break down tasks into manageable parts and overcome procrastination.


Cultivating Flexible Thinking

Perfectionism can lead to rigid, all-or-nothing thinking. Coaches can help students understand that mistakes are a natural part of learning, thereby encouraging more flexible thinking.


Stress Management Techniques

Coaches can teach students strategies to manage stress and anxiety, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and other relaxation strategies.


Promoting Self-reflection and Self-awareness

Executive function coaches can help students identify their perfectionistic tendencies, understand the reasons behind them, and develop strategies to manage them effectively.


The goal of executive function coaching isn't to eliminate perfectionism, but rather to provide students with strategies to manage their perfectionism in a way that allows them to work efficiently, effectively, and with less stress.


Conclusion

Understanding the intricate interplay between perfectionism and ADHD is crucial for supporting students who grapple with these challenges.


Perfectionism, while it can motivate achievement, can also lead to significant distress, especially in conjunction with ADHD.


It's important for parents and educators to create an environment that emphasizes effort, learning, and resilience, and to seek professional support when necessary.


Although navigating the complex landscape of ADHD and perfectionism can be difficult, it's crucial to remember that the goal isn't perfection, but personal growth.


By fostering this mindset, we can equip students with the tools to balance their ambitions with self-compassion, laying the groundwork for resilience in the face of future challenges.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more insights on supporting your child's growth in their executive function skills.



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About the author

Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.


He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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