Parents and caregivers are often the first people to notice the signs of perfectionism in kids. However, even if you worry that it could negatively impact a child's life, you might not know exactly what to do about it. There are ways to help kids experiencing perfectionism overcome the self-critical thoughts, intense pressure, and possible consequences that can come alongside. It all starts with understanding how perfectionism works internally.
This article will talk about understanding perfectionism in kids with ADHD, including the link between ADHD and perfectionism, strategies for navigating perfectionistic behaviors and thoughts in children, and tips for managing ADHD symptoms in kids who experience perfectionism.
Understanding Perfectionism in Children with ADHD
Perfectionism refers to the tendency to set extremely high standards for oneself. People who experience perfectionism may expect flawlessness from themselves, even when situations and demands from others don't call for it. This can be confusing for parents, especially if they don't face perfectionism themselves and haven't put this kind of pressure on their kids.
Perfectionist tendencies may seem like a positive trait on the outside, but holding oneself to such unrealistic expectations can have extensive negative impacts. Perfectionism is associated with:
- A greater risk of some mental health conditions, including but not limited to eating disorders, self-harm, depression, and anxiety.
- Procrastination or trouble trying new things, often due to the internally held expectation that one should be good at anything they try right away.
- Physical health concerns, such as insomnia and body aches.
- Negative self-talk and self-perception.
How ADHD can exacerbate perfectionism
ADHD and perfectionism can go hand-in-hand for a couple of reasons. First, the role of rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD) must be acknowledged. Making mistakes can be excessively painful with RSD, and research shows that nearly everyone with ADHD experiences it. That said, RSD isn't the only way ADHD can exacerbate perfectionism.
Many people with ADHD experience frequent misunderstandings due to their symptoms. Forgetfulness, impulsivity, and more can all make it hard to meet neurotypical standards, and others might not understand why that's the case.
Alternatively, children might make this connection themselves and wonder why their brains don't operate like others. This is part of why education on ADHD matters so much for people with it and those without it.
Kids may hold themselves to impossible standards due to any of these factors or a combination of them.
Common signs of perfectionism in children with ADHD
Knowing what to look for can help you identify unhealthy perfectionism in a child. Once you identify perfectionism and how it affects your child, you can help them address it and avoid negative consequences. Perfectionism may present differently depending on various factors, but some of the most common signs in kids with ADHD include the following:
- Fear of failure or disappointing other people.
- All-or-nothing thinking (e.g., "My performance at the recital was either perfect or terrible, no in between") or a fixed mindset.
- Feeling easily discouraged by small mistakes or setbacks (one may want to give up on new challenges if they experience failure, even though failure is necessary to learn).
- Low self-esteem or negative thoughts about oneself.
- Defensiveness or trouble taking feedback from others.
- A tendency toward anxiety and overwhelm.
- Constant comparison to other children.
- Reluctance to ask for help.
Strategies for Managing Perfectionism in Children with ADHD
Once a parent notices perfectionism in a child, it's time to step in and explore ways to help. You won't risk lowering a child's drive when you work through perfectionism, but you will support your child's well-being and give them the skills necessary to overcome challenges in life confidently. Use these strategies to manage perfection in kids with ADHD to support them in finding success and a greater sense of calm.
Encourage positive self-talk and mindset
Practice positive self-talk with your child. You can start by helping kids learn to reframe negative thoughts and the core beliefs behind them. Let's say a child's upset because they made a mistake during a dance recital or on a school assignment. What would they tell a friend in that scenario?
Sometimes, children wouldn't be as hard on someone else as they are on themselves. Others might have unrealistic standards for others as well as themselves. For example, they might say, "Well, I'd tell a friend they should work harder." Regardless, this gives you a starting point. You can now help the child unpack their thought process gently. Learning requires mistakes, and perfection is not everything.
Practicing positive affirmations such as "My best is all I can do" and "It doesn't need to be perfect" is also valuable for many people who feel pressure to be perfect.
Emphasize progress over perfection
A lot of parents and teachers are used to praising good grades or similar outcomes, but more patience for the process is what a perfectionist needs. Rather than focus on the outcome, emphasize a child's effort. That way, kids are more apt to see the value of putting their time into activities and learning new things. Working toward a goal is something they'll associate with positive regard rather than perfection.
Promote a growth mindset and embrace mistakes
One of the downfalls of perfectionism is that high standards and fear of mistakes can make people feel uncomfortable trying new things. Embrace errors by seeing them as learning opportunities, and teach kids how to step back and problem-solve so that they'll know how to work through hurdles.
Author and clinical psychologist Sharon Saline has touched on this topic before, saying that you truly can't emphasize a growth mindset enough for kids with ADHD and perfectionism.
Foster a healthy relationship with failure
Most perfectionists panic at the thought of "failure." In a child's head, even tiny mishaps may register as failures. The learning process, which includes some stumbles and trouble-shooting most of the time, could lead a child to quit or feel as though they've failed.
Give praise during the learning process to help children form a healthier outlook. Specifically after anything that could be registered as a "failure." For example, if a child gets a math problem wrong, you might say, "Great job showing your work and getting started on this! Let's go back to this step." That way, you encourage a child's confidence and provide an opening to help them learn how to do the problem correctly without shame.
If the child says, "It's not a great job; I got it wrong," you might say, "Actually, this is excellent; it takes a long time to get this stuff." Proceed to discuss effort and perseverance as markers of success rather than perfection.
In the case that a child gets frustrated, give praise and direct them to take a break from the task. That way, they can come back later with fresh eyes.
Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques
All kids need a strong set of coping skills, but they can be even more crucial for perfectionists. Guided meditations, such as a self-compassion meditation, positive and purposeful self-talk, and finding ways that the unique child can wind down (e.g., reading before bed, soothing activities like the use of sensory swings) can all help relieve stress and preserve well-being.
During times of anxiety or stress, the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness activity, talking to someone, squeezing stress balls or using sensory toys, and having an outlet, like music, an active hobby, outdoor time, playtime, or something else, can all be valuable.
Similarly, kids should learn to work through frustration caused by perfectionism mindfully. For a perfectionist child, learning to take a deep breath or a break and reframe maladaptive thoughts when they feel frustrated or notice negative self-talk matters.
Limit screen time and promote outdoor activities
Social media is a major source of comparison to others. Regardless of what kind of technology a child engages with, it's necessary to have healthy limits. The AACAP has guidelines families can follow if they aren't sure what boundaries to set. Kids ages 2-5 are recommended to limit screens to one hour per day on weekdays and three hours per day on weekends. Parents of children ages 6+ should limit screen use reasonably with their discretion and:
- Turn off all electronics during family meals and outings.
- Learn about and use parental controls.
- Turn off and remove screens from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
Outdoor time can replace excess time spent on screens. Research shows that outdoor activities relieve stress, have mood-boosting effects, and can decrease anxiety levels. Time outdoors gives kids experiencing perfectionism a break from negative self-talk and life's demands.
Families can help kids get the benefits of time in nature in many ways. You may plan family activities, like nature walks, visit local parks, involve kids in Summer and afterschool activities that take place outdoors, or encourage outdoor play.
Seek professional support and therapy
The right mental health professionals will have the tools and resources to help kids understand perfectionism, develop a healthier, more productive mindset, work through negative feelings, and increase self-worth. Look for a provider who has experience helping children through perfectionism in therapy. Those who are versed in both childhood anxiety (due to the crossover it has with perfectionist tendencies) and ADHD will often be a good fit. Talk with multiple providers to find the right match. Often, you'll know when you find the compassionate therapist, psychologist, counselor, or social worker you want your child to work with.
Tips for Managing ADHD Symptoms in Perfectionist Children
Managing ADHD symptoms and perfectionism can take extra care, but the results are worth the time. In addition to using the strategies above to help children work through perfectionism and self-critical thoughts, managing ADHD will help set your child up for long-term success.
Joon is a to-do app and game created for children with ADHD and related disorders ages 6-12+. Using Joon is an excellent way to instill routines, structure, and self-esteem in kids. Here's how it works:
Adults sign up with Joon Parent App and make a to-do list for their children. Homework, household chores, and self-care activities are all examples of tasks to include. Kids connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. After finishing items on their to-do lists, children get coins and experience points that allow them to progress in Joon Pet Game and take care of a virtual pet called a Doter.
90% of kids who use the app finish all of their tasks. Joon is rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars, with more than 4.6k ratings in total from users like you.
Encourage physical activity
Physical activity supports focus, physical health, and mental health. Extensive research shows that exercise can lead to a reduction in stress and better academic performance. It's also well-known that physical activity can reduce ADHD symptoms.
As an added bonus, active hobbies can be an outlet and source of confidence. Children ages 6+ need a minimum of one hour of physical activity every day, whether it's playing football, dancing, running around at the playground, yoga, or anything else.
Practice time management and planning skills
Time management and planning skills reduce overwhelm and are essential for people with ADHD. In addition to daily schedules and routines, these can include but aren't limited to:
- Making a plan for large tasks in advance and breaking them down into smaller pieces. For example, if your child has a lengthy, overwhelming essay to write, you might help kids break it down into steps and finish one step each weekday.
- Using checklists, planners, chore charts, apps, or calendars to track important deadlines and events.
- External tools, such as timers, to keep track of time spent on specific activities.
Provide positive reinforcement and rewards for effort
Reward systems and positive reinforcement are excellent ways to motivate children with ADHD. Remember to reward effort rather than outcomes. For example, working on homework, getting chores done, or putting in the effort to learn how to do something new (e.g., learning how to work through a tough math problem, going to tutoring appointments).
Reward systems can differ depending on a child's age. Sticker charts and small items can be ideal for younger kids. Older kids might use token systems where they collect tokens to work up to a larger reward. Experiences tend to work as rewards for most age groups as long as they relate to a child's interests.
Consider medication options and alternative treatments
The first recommended line of treatment for ADHD is usually a combination of medication and therapy for people ages 6+. If a child isn't already on medication and ADHD symptoms are affecting their life, it's a worthwhile consideration that can make a big difference.
Talk with your child's doctor about starting ADHD medication and go over your concerns. They'll start kids at a very low dose and move up only until it's at a therapeutic level. Most people need medication adjustments once they get older, so this is something to consider if you have a child currently on medication but don't notice the same effects you used to.
Outside of medication and standard therapy used for ADHD, other forms of support can be beneficial. Kids may benefit from equine therapy, art therapy, music therapy, working with an occupational therapist, or something else. The best approaches depend on your unique child and their needs.
Consider school accommodations for kids who may benefit from them. Sometimes, school-related challenges can be covered up by perfectionism, so think about what could support your child in school even if their grades meet or exceed expectations.
Seek out support and resources for parents and caregivers
There are many resources out there for parents and guardians of children with ADHD. Support groups, therapy, and education can all be advantageous. Remember to care for yourself and your own mental health while supporting your child.
Research on Overcoming Childhood Perfectionism
Many people have found ways to navigate perfectionism successfully. Helping kids learn to manage their own expectations and cope during childhood is ideal for the best outcome, so if you have a perfectionist child, learning about how to tackle it now is a sign that you're on the right path. Here's what we know based on research surrounding childhood perfectionism.
- Studies find that cognitive-behavioral approaches are beneficial for kids struggling with perfectionism, so emphasizing mindfulness, working with therapists, addressing the drive for control many perfectionists feel, and changing how success is viewed can all be of value.
- Self-esteem and the ability to proceed despite mistakes is a protective factor for perfectionists, so you want to focus on seeing mistakes as learning opportunities and promoting a healthy, unconditional positive regard for oneself.
- While family dynamics don't always play a role, many studies show that kids model their parent's actions. Model a positive attitude for your child by embracing your own mistakes as learning opportunities and working through roadblocks.
While perfectionism is a common personality trait that can have downfalls, extensive research on neuroplasticity shows that changing thought processes is possible. Continue supporting your child, and don't hesitate to seek professional help if needed.
Perfectionism can impact anyone, but ADHD and perfectionism can go together in some ways. Whether due to nature, socially prescribed perfectionism, or a combination of things, perfectionism can have negative consequences. Kids on a quest to be "perfect children" may be more prone to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and other concerns. Parents who notice that their child is showing signs of perfectionism can help them overcome the obstacles that come with it and have a better relationship with themselves. For kids with ADHD and perfectionism, addressing both is vital.