What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the black and white view that if something isn’t
perfect, it’s useless. Perfectionists experience intense anxiety
about making mistakes and tend to underachieve rather than succeed.
They will procrastinate or avoid tasks so that they can’t
be judged on them.
Academically, perfectionist children sometimes
freeze up when they need to perform during an exam or presentation.
The anxiety can also cause somatic symptoms such as headaches and
stomachaches that can even result in school absenteeism and school
Socially, perfectionist children sometimes avoid
seeing friends or going to social events. Perfectionist girls are
known to obsess about their weight or their clothes, and avoid participating
in their school’s social life until they are “perfect.”
These children often avoid life choices that would make them happy
because those choices don’t fit the “perfect”
mold. As a result, they maintain the appearance of perfection while
Some children are just born with a perfectionist
nature. Bright kids can be especially prone to academic perfectionism,
and socially adept kids can experience pressure to be perfect in
that sphere. But our South Asian culture can play a role in perfectionism
Perfectionism and South Asian Kids
These days everyone talks so much about South Asian kids succeeding,
that we often miss the ugly underbelly of this phenomenon—the
intense pressure it puts on our kids to succeed. Though there is
nothing wrong with high expectations if they are attainable, unchecked
and unrealistic standards can do a lot of damage. Fear of mistakes
is also harmful, but it is through mistakes that we grow as individuals.
I have seen many South Asian children in my psychiatrist office
who feel that they do not measure up, and they shut down as a result.
Often, these children, like the media, think that all South Asian
kids are the same—that they are all academic superstars or
beauty queens! When reality doesn’t match those high standards,
there is no room for mistakes, and it seems like there is no alternate
path to success—everyone is in for a let-down.
What Parents Can Do
Though we all want to encourage achievement, we need to be careful
about the messages we send to our children. South Asian culture
already puts enough pressure on kids with its emphasis on filial
duty and how one’s actions reflect on everyone else in the
family. If you have a child who has a perfectionist tendency, you
need to also emphasize how everyone who has ever achieved success,
including yourself, isn’t perfect! Teaching children to embrace
mistakes as an opportunity to grow is key.
Also important is to get kids to appreciate different
kinds of success and the many paths to it. Their job is to discover
their own paths, because someone else’s way may not suit them!
We need to help our kids recognize their strengths and how they
can best bring out their own talents.
Some children give up too easily, expecting everything
to come naturally on the first try. Everyone has some aspect of
a task that they will find challenging. Learning how to overcome
obstacles is often the key to success later in life. So teach your
children good study and organizational skills. Show them how to
organize tasks or break them up into manageable pieces to make the
task seem less daunting. Then, applaud their hard work and perseverance,
not the results!
Also, show children how to avoid social pressures.
Talk to them about your values and explain how real friendship means
that you don’t have to present yourself as someone you’re
not. Make sure you are a good role model of this in your own life.
Encourage them, as well, to find and pursue their passions and talents
because that’s what will ultimately lead to success.
Of course, if perfectionism is taking too much
of a toll, don’t be afraid to seek some professional help.
Ranu Boppana, MD is an Adult and Child Psychiatrist in private practice
in New York, NY and a Clinical Instructor at the NYU School of Medicine.
Back to Top