Helpful Tips for Parents of Perfectionistic Gifted Learners

By Susan T. Berry, Ph.D.

For parents of gifted/high ability children, one of the most challenging characteristics is the tendency toward perfectionism. Their children's high standards for performance may catapult them to achievements that far surpass those of their same-age peers. At the same time, however, the striving for perfection may also lead high intensity gifted children and adolescents to the inevitable experience of their own human frailty, and, subsequently, to the depths of despair, the heights of frustration and rage, and the refusal to try again.

Parents frequently ask: Is perfectionism a good thing, or a bad thing?
As we shall see, the dichotomy presented in this question itself, hints at one of the strategies to guide our perfectionistic high ability learners.

If you're the parent of a gifted young person with these tendencies, you've probably seen your young child smash a Lego project suddenly to the floor because he couldn't get it to look exactly the way he wanted. You may have heard your daughter say she wants to quit gymnastics because there's no use in continuing since she's not going to make it to the Olympics. Perhaps your child is not even doing well in his school performance because he backs away from assignments he believes he will not be able to complete perfectly.

Unfortunately, when parents of gifted learners have sought the help of some psychologists who have little knowledge of giftedness and its characteristics, they have sometimes been led to believe that perfectionism is a negative characteristic, perhaps something to be "gotten over." Worse yet, some mental health professionals and school personnel will tend to presume the reason for the child's perfectionistic tendency is too much parental pressure.

However, in 1971, psychologist Abraham Maslow had a different perspective. He proposed that perfectionism is, in reality, a healthy part of self-actualization. In his book, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow stated, "Self-actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption."

Similarly, psychologist Ellen Winner, in her book, Gifted Children (1996), noted that since high standards ultimately lead to high achievements, perfectionism is a positive feature.

Then, in 1999, psychologist Pat Schuler confirmed, in a study that focused on gifted middle school students, that perfectionism exists on a continuum, from healthy to dysfunctional behaviors. Schuler found that "healthy perfectionists" demonstrated:

 An intense need for order and organization
 Self-acceptance of mistakes
 High parental expectation
 Positive ways of coping with their perfectionistic  tendencies
 Role models who emphasize doing one's best
 A view that personal effort is an important part of their perfectionism.

On the other hand, Schuler discovered that, "dysfunctional perfectionists" displayed:

 A state of anxiety about making errors
 Extremely high standards
 Perceived excessive expectations and negative criticisms  from others
 Questioning of their own judgments
 Lack of effective coping strategies
 A constant need for approval

A similar pattern has been confirmed in more recent research, though not research that included perfectionism in the gifted population per se. A study by Stairs, et al (2011) found that there is no single perfectionism personality trait. In fact, their research led them to identify nine personality traits that contribute to perfectionism:

• Pursuit of Order
• Satisfaction
• Details and Checking
• Perfectionism Toward Others
• High Standards
• Black and White Thinking about Tasks and Activities
• Perceived Pressure from Others
• Dissatisfaction
• Reactivity to Mistakes

These authors concluded, however, that the first five of these traits did not correlate with scales that measured components of Neuroticism, or, dysfunction, but did correlate with features of Conscientiousness. Similarly, the last four of these traits were correlated with Neuroticism, associated with the experience of distress, and were related to extreme, maladaptive levels of conscientiousness.

What practical knowledge can we gain from the combined efforts of these studies, as they pertain to gifted learners? First, perfectionism is a complex characteristic - perhaps a "concept," in fact, that cannot really be identified by its name alone, and, consequently, cannot be declared simply a "good" or "bad" quality.

Second, based on the results of these studies, we can suggest that the following traits contribute to the "concept" of "healthy" perfectionism:

• Need for order and organization
• Acceptance of one's own humanness and errors
• Parental support and role models for high standards
• Attention to details
• The awareness that personal effort and high standards are an important part of one's perfectionism

In addition, the following traits might contribute to the "concept" of "unhealthy" or "dysfunctional" perfectionism:

• Anxiety about making mistakes
• Perceived pressure from others
• "Black and white," or forced choice thinking in many situations, such as "good or bad," "right or wrong," or "perfect or failing."
• Self-doubt
• Lack of effective coping strategies
• A constant need for approval, and a belief that much of one's success or failure will be determined by outside sources, not personal effort.

Third, as we have learned by living and working with gifted individuals, it is often not a particular trait, or characteristic, that is problematic, but, rather, the intensity of the emotion and the behavior related to it that can lead to self-criticism and family upsets. Teaching gifted learners how to manage their emotions and the behaviors related to them, i.e., effective coping strategies, is an essential life lesson that, sometimes, can be helped along by a psychologist who understands the nature of giftedness, and the importance of the intensity and the passion in the gifted child's life.

Going back to Abraham Maslow, he seemed to be alluding to the "gifted passions," when he said, "Self-actualization means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption." Anyone who knows and loves a gifted child can fully appreciate Maslow's comment!

Consider the following suggestions to help your gifted perfectionist:

1. Try to make sure "parent perfectionists" are modeling "healthy" perfectionism, i.e., high standards for achievement, but acceptance of one's mistakes and willingness to learn and try again.

2. Teach your child the difference between excellence and perfection. Excellence can be achieved, but perfection cannot. Teach this concept first in a logical way that provides some distance from your child's own struggles, so that he or she can consider the example without feeling threatened.

For example, parents might talk about foods the family enjoys. Pizza might be "excellent," because of its taste and the possibilities of many different toppings, but it's not a "perfect" food because it can be messy to eat and sometimes the crust is too thick or too thin, etc. Despite these "imperfections," we still eat it because its taste is "excellent."

In another example that is related to schoolwork, "excellence" is about good study or organizational habits, handing in assignments on time, and awareness that, during "group" tasks, the project is not entirely under one's control. "Perfectionism" would instead drive a gifted student to despair over a final grade of 96, instead of 100, regardless of the high quality of the work and preparation he or she achieved.

Try to come up with other examples that can logically distinguish "excellence" from "perfection," and invite your gifted child to come up with some as well.

3. Teach your child how to "evaluate" his or her perfectionism. Does he think it is healthy? If he could change his perfectionism, what would he change? Most perfectionistic children and adolescents express that meltdowns and tantrums over perceived failures bring discomfort and embarrassment to them later. A professional with experience with gifted children can help them to use these feelings as a lever to change the associated behavior.

Discussions regarding a child's evaluation of his perfectionism can help to teach about the concept of balance in life. Is a high level of achievement always the necessary outcome? Under which circumstances would your child allow herself to accept a "less than perfect" outcome? This could be an interesting exercise in having your child realize she is quite accepting of imperfection in many more areas of her life than she may realize.

4. If your child displays a perceived sense of pressure from others, try to find out about the source of that perceived pressure. Have him provide concrete examples of the pressure, and be ready to help him assess whether his perceived pressure is a real one. Sometimes, a professional is helpful here, since very often the real source of the pressure is the child himself. A trained psychologist can help with the "projection."

5. When a problem is presented to gifted learners, often these children will immediately begin anticipating the "perfect" outcome or solution. Help your child to view a task, project, or assignment as a series of steps rather than a "perfect ending." Keeping the focus on each step, and how to achieve just that one alone, will allay anxiety about ultimate failure and prevent procrastination.

Remember that some gifted children are underachievers because of their less than healthy perfectionism. They avoid tasks and assignments for fear they will fail and not live up to the "perceived" high standards of others. Encourage your child when she tries something new or is open to a new approach to a problem or "step" along the way.

A word of caution, however, that we should distinguish between children with perfectionistic leanings who need to learn how to cope with their less than perfect outcomes, and those children who truly intuitively know the correct answer or solution to a problem immediately, but are made to go through a multitude of repetitions or "steps" to a problem just for the sake of uniformity of teaching method. The latter situation requires a serious examination of school environment.

6. As difficult as it may be, allow your high ability child to experience his mistakes and failures. Be there to support him when they occur, help him evaluate them, and encourage him to use his newfound knowledge to try again. Even when you don't fully understand the intensity of your child's feelings, a simple, "I know this is really hard for you," will at least convey to your child that you are on his side, understanding his difficulty.

7. Model for your child that many activities in life can simply be enjoyed without the need for high level of achievement. Let your child know that you enjoyed playing tennis with her because you liked being with her, not because of how she performed during the game. This discussion may lead to another about how friends also just like to be together, even if the activity involved is not everyone's favorite. The "excellence" in this case is well-spent time with friends, rather than the "perfection" of doing one's favorite activity.

8. Teach your child the difference between having high standards for himself, and unrealistically expecting the same high standards in others. An essential lesson in the life of a gifted individual is learning that not only do many others not have his same high level of ability, but also that many do not have the same high standards. Discuss with your child what this means to him, and how it affects his evaluations of his relationships with others.

9. Finally, try to avoid "black and white" descriptors, such as "good" and "bad" when speaking with your child about his work, project, performance, etc. Remember that perfectionism that is closer to the "unhealthy" end of the continuum is marked by this kind of dichotomous thinking.

Parents in work environments in which they receive performance evaluations may be able to relate to what it would be like if your boss simply told you your performance during the past year was "good" or "bad." It's likely you'd want to know more of the details, and any quality evaluation would provide those. Gifted children are their own "bosses," often evaluating themselves with a "good" or "bad" rating.

So, model greater detail. Many gifted children are very logical, and logical, practical discussions about improvements, some of which they should come up with themselves, can help bring down the emotional intensity of the self-criticism and fear of failure.

Perfectionism may be challenging and frustrating, but it is not simply "good" or "bad." Rather, it's a concept with many traits contributing to it. Some traits are healthier than others, and catapult gifted learners to achieve great things. Capitalize on the healthier traits, and use those strengths to minimize those that lead to greater amounts of stress.

References:

Maslow, A. H.  (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.  New York: Viking Press.

Schuler, P. A. (1999). Voices of perfectionism: Perfectionistic gifted adolescents in a rural middle school. (Research Monograph 99140). Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut, The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Stairs, Agnes M., et al. Clarifying the Construct of Perfectionism. Assessment, XX(X) 1-21, June, 2011.

Winner. E. (1996). Gifted Children. New York: Basic Books

Dr. Berry is a practicing clinical psychologist in Glastonbury, CT who provides consultative, counseling, and assessment services to gifted children, their parents, and gifted adults. 

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