Perfectionism and anxiety
November 15, 2016
With the year 12s just completing their exams, and university and year 10 and 11 students about to start their exams, I think it's timely to discuss perfectionism and its role in anxiety.
What is Perfectionism?
Despite how it sounds, perfectionism is not about having perfect marks in an exam or assignment, or completing tasks perfectly. Rather, perfectionism involves setting standards that are relatively too high or difficult to achieve consistently in the long term. In addition, the person with perfectionism constantly strives to achieve the high standards and is not satisfied or minimises their achievements if they do succeed. For example, lets imagine Sally who has just completed her end of year exams. Sally has set a goal to get marks above 80%. When receiving her results, Sally receives scores of 83%, 85%, and 77% with an average of 82%. Instead of being happy with her results, Sally overly focuses on the exam in which she received a score of 77% , and minimises her achievements in the other 2 exams. Furthermore, while studying for her exams, Sally pushes herself to study staying up late, doesn't take sufficient breaks and she withdraws from her usual activities. An important note here is that perfectionism does not extend to every aspect of the person's life. Someone with perfectionistic standards at work, may have fairly relaxed standards at home.
Coping with Perfectionism
People with perfectionism cope with the stress of achieving high standards in several ways, both of which are unhelpful in the long term. One way is to endlessly strive to achieve the high standard, pushing themselves constantly and either minimising their achievements or not taking time to acknowledge the achievements. Invariably, they burnout from the stress. The alternative is for the person to avoid or procrastinate about starting tasks that involve the high standards. In this case, the person with perfectionism tends to start assignments at the last moment leaving little time to complete the assignment or avoids studying until the last moment and then cramming before an exam. In a weird way, if they do poorly in the assignment or exam, the person can justify that they had little time to complete the task. However, had they given themselves sufficient time to complete the assignment or study and then done poorly (to their own standards), they would likely feel a great deal of failure.
Perfectionism in children
In my practice, I often see children with early signs of perfectionistic characteristics and associated anxiety. In young children, perfectionism can be displayed through difficulty coping with mistakes or errors. For example, the child may screw up the paper of a drawing they were doing and may progress to a meltdown or tantrum. Some children avoid tasks they do not feel confident in or are uncertain about (e.g. participating in sport or an activity they are unfamiliar with). Other children are highly meticulous with their work and take much longer than their peers to complete tasks. However, they all present with varying degrees of anxiety in regards to not achieving the standards they had set for themselves. In teenagers, particularly students in upper high school, where there are more demands on the child to complete study and assignments simultaneously, we tend to see different coping strategies of overcompensation (excessive study/attention to detail) or avoidance (procrastinating/cramming) coming in to play. Over a prolonged period, for example during year 12 and WACE exams, the child may also develop symptoms of anxiety or depression.
How to help children with perfectionism
Firstly, it is important to clarify if the child has characteristics of perfectionism. However, if you suspect that your child may have some features of perfectionism, then you can try the following:
encourage your child to have a go regardless of the outcome
encourage effort rather than the outcome. For example you can use phrases such as "I was really proud of you for trying something new, even though you were a bit scared" or "I could see that you were really trying hard today". You may also want to discuss aspects that are not related to outcome such as "I liked the way you showed good sportsmanship of the field today"
younger children respond well to positive statements and you and your child can come up with a few such as "no one's perfect, that's why pencils have erasers"
with older children or teenagers you may need to work on setting an appropriate timetable for studying either to build in breaks or encourage them to start depending on their coping strategies.
Sometimes though despite all the reassurance and support from parents, some children (and the family) may require additional support and a referral to a psychologist may be required.