Understanding perfectionism in gifted children

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, 20 percent of highly intelligent kids also display perfectionist tendencies. As such, while any child can develop perfectionism, you should especially look out for early signs if your children are gifted. By understanding how perfectionism manifests for bright kids, you can help your children develop healthy habits and stress-management tools.

What is perfectionism?
Simply put, perfectionism is the perceived need to complete a task without error. It drives people to focus on the details in their work and perform at a high level. It may also cause individuals to work long hours or sacrifice a healthy lifestyle in the name of finishing the task perfectly. 

Gifted kids are prone to perfectionism because of their active minds. They can picture what they think their project should look like by the end, whether that's playing a song on the piano without missing a note or easily solving a math problem. However, just because gifted children can picture the ideal outcome doesn't mean they are capable of producing it yet.

And so comes the downside of perfectionism: dwelling on mistakes and failure, or being so afraid of failure, kids don't try to begin with. Perfectionism becomes unhealthy when gifted kids are obsessive. If your children sacrifice life balance (e.g., skip meals, don't play with friends, go to bed late), feel bad for taking downtime or become depressed when they don't meet expectations, they might be showing signs of unhealthy perfectionism.

Helping your child find balance
It's normal and OK to want to perform well, and you can certainly encourage your gifted children to do their best. However, you should also them overcome that voice that says "You have to do it perfectly." Help them balance high standards with a healthy lifestyle by doing the following:

Model balance
Many parents of gifted children are also perfectionists, which can cause negative outcomes. Be cognizant of how your perfectionism manifests, and choose to model balance. For instance, take breaks from your work, schedule personal downtime, enjoy things that bring you pleasure and always put your physical well-being first. Additionally, explain to your children why these good habits are important.

Differentiate between perfection and high achievement
Gifted children who are also perfectionists tend to feel they've failed if their work isn't flawless, even if they've done well. Teach your children that being excellent doesn't require perfection. Furthermore, explain that perfection is not achievable. These are concepts you'll probably revisit over and over, so look for teaching opportunities in your daily life.

Encourage family meals
When your children are working hard on homework or a project, you may be tempted to bring dinner to their rooms. However, insisting on eating meals as a family creates a time when your children can step away from work and build supportive family relationships.

Work through failures
Your children will mess up now and then. They may not earn an A on a test or might play the wrong note at a recital. When these things happen, give your children space to be upset. They should feel the emotions and learn to cope with them. Your children will eventually see that mistakes aren't the end. However, do intervene when they dwell on failure. Remind them that how well they perform doesn't determine their value. Remind your children that they are talented, smart, and above all, loved.

Being a perfectionist can help your gifted children pay attention to details and ultimately achieve high levels of success. However, if left unchecked, that same trait could cause negative self-esteem and the need for constant outside approval. Look for signs of perfectionism in your children and help them find a healthy life balance.

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