Your child's a shining star—from straight-A report cards to sweeper on the soccer field, she's constantly pursuing perfection. Her enthusiasm and work ethic are great, but the nonstop pressure is starting to show. Suddenly, your super student is skipping sleep to catch up on homework, practice dribbling and socialize with friends.
Is your child just working hard, or is she developing unhealthy habits that'll hurt her later in life? How do know when your overachiever is going "over the edge"?
"Research indicates that [constant] striving for perfection can actually reduce—rather than increase—productivity and achievement," says Dr. Gordon Flett, professor at York University and author of the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), a tool for measuring perfectionist tendencies.
Even very young children can be harmed by the pursuit of perfection. Dr. Flett describes a study of preschoolers who were asked questions about how important it was to "be perfect"—and then were given tasks that couldn't be completed correctly. The over-achieving, perfectionist children showed many more signs of stress, anger and other problems than the laid-back kids.
Heading off unhealthy habits in your overachiever starts with an awareness of the problem. Pay attention to the following red flags that might indicate that your kid's flawless ambition is doing more harm than good:
- Procrastination. Budding perfectionists have a tendency to procrastinate. If your kid doesn't want to turn in an assignment or complete a project if it isn't error-free, she'll continually put it off. In this case, gently urge her to let go and either complete, or move on, from the task at hand. Remind her that the essay that she's writing doesn't need to be perfect—she should simply do her best, then focus on something else.
- Studying and sleep. If your child stays up late to cram for exams, her lack of shut-eye is likely hindering her academic performance. A 2006 study from the Harvard Medical School found that sleep actually aids memory and retention. Instead, work with your studious youngster to come up with a schedule that has her studying for a set amount of time each day, and getting enough rest—these healthy habits will make it easier to ace her test.
- Self-criticism. Excessive self-doubt is a warning that your overachiever doesn't have a realistic view of herself or the world. If she always views her accomplishments too negatively, Dr. Flett suggests that you talk to her about the challenges—and mistakes—that you made when you were young. "Kids need to realize that nobody is perfect, including their parents...they love to hear funny stories about their parents' mistakes."
- Performance drugs. The number of kids who are using so-called "performance-enhancing" drugs to keep up with schoolwork is rising at an alarming rate. A recent FDA study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that prescriptions for drugs like Adderall, often prescribed to kids with ADHD, increased by 46 percent in the last ten years. These medications should meet a legitimate medical need—if your kid wants drugs to increase her focus, that's a red flag that she's overly stressed. Alternatively, talk to her about self-soothing methods she could practice, such as meditation or yoga.
- Social isolation. If she's shying away from fun social interactions with friends and family, your child might be putting way too much pressure on herself. Reclusiveness can result from children feeling overloaded by expectations, even when the stress is self-generated. Focus on fun activities with your little achiever that avoid pressure to do things the "right" way. Play non-competitive group games like charades or a low-key ball game in the backyard with the whole family. Your little learner needs to know that you love and accept her no matter what she accomplishes.
- Perfect façade. If all you hear is, "Everything's fine!" it probably isn't. Acting like everything is always under control can become a habit for kids who are afraid to ask for help. Make sure that your go-getter knows that you are always there for her by staying involved. Make a point of helping her with her homework and attending after-school activities, even when she says that she doesn't need anyone or anything.
- Obsessive-compulsive behavior. Rituals and repetitive behaviors around schoolwork can be a sign that your student feels overwhelmed. Since being flawless is impossible, irrational actions can develop around the quest for perfection. Proofreading and checking work is a good thing—but an inability to stop checking for mistakes isn't healthy. Go through assignments together, praising her for excellent (not just perfect) work. Seeing you eschew an "A+ or bust" attitude will make her more likely to follow suit.
- Health habits. Sleep, exercise and healthy eating habits are at the core of taking care of yourself—and it's easy for overachievers to lose sight of what's healthy in the pursuit of "having it all". Discourage your little perfectionist from drinking coffee or sugary energy drinks; temporary caffeine boosts may make her feel alert for a short period of time, but too much will cause long-term harm.
Parents play an important role in managing their child's high expectations. "It's reasonable to have high parental expectations, but if the expectations are not met, it's important not to be too critical," reminds Dr. Flett. "There really is a difference between striving for excellence versus striving for perfection." Put your kid on a healthier path by modeling a work-life-fun balance, and she's sure to ease up on herself and act like a kid while she still can.