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'90s FAMILY

Too Much of a Good Thing

Every parent wants a 'perfect' child. But if your teen takes that to extremes, it's a problem. Because striving to be perfect can make a kid perfectly miserable.

May 25, 1997|SUSAN SPAETH CHERRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Your 12-year-old spends an hour fixing her hair before school, almost missing her bus. During dinner, she complains that she didn't score enough soccer points in gym class, even though she made more goals than anyone else on her team. At bedtime, she sits at her desk, revising a book report over and over.

Chances are your child is a perfectionist--someone who cannot accept a less than faultless performance without feeling inadequate. And there is a big difference between striving for perfection and pushing for excellence, according to early adolescence expert Linda Dunlap, chairman of the psychology department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"If a child continues to want to do better but can feel happy with even slight gains in his achievement, he probably has a healthy drive for excellence. But if he's satisfied with only a 100% performance, this can be dangerous. Perfectionists blame themselves for everything, even things outside their control, and this often makes them miserable," Dunlap says.

Although perfectionism sometimes shows up in early childhood, it more often emerges during puberty, when kids become highly attuned to the way others see them, comparing their internal doubts with others' appearance of self-confidence. Some young teens become perfectionist in an attempt to control the overwhelming physical, emotional and cognitive changes taking place inside them.

Experts say perfectionism has biological and environmental roots. It is most common in firstborn and only children, who often have high expectations placed upon them by moms and dads who need to prove themselves as parents. Although perfectionism cuts across race and class lines, a Harvard University study suggests that girls of color are less likely to be perfectionist than white girls because their communities tend to support them for who they are, not how they should be.

Early adolescents can be perfectionists about their appearance, their performance in school, their achievement in extracurricular activities and even their chores. Girls are often perfectionist about the way they look, fueled by media messages about staying thin and keeping skin and hair flawless. Boys are often perfectionists in sports.

Experts say perfectionism can lead to a host of problems. If kids try to do everything flawlessly, they can end up doing nothing well at all. Their self-esteem can fall as a result, and they may stop putting forth effort in everything. Extreme perfectionism can lead to depression, substance abuse, sleep problems and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

"Some kids are so worried about doing a perfect job that they don't enjoy anything they do and they often miss the point of what they're doing. For example, a child may be so concerned about the appearance of a report that she focuses on penmanship, instead of content," says Edward Brazee of the University of Maine, editor of the In-Between Years, a newsletter on early adolescence.

Young teens sometimes become perfectionists to get attention from parents who are busy with their own lives, says Brazee, noting that most moms and dads interact face to face with their early adolescents for only eight to 11 minutes a day.

If perfectionism appears to be an ongoing problem, consider getting help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. Therapists can help kids examine the illogical beliefs underlying perfectionism and develop more realistic expectations for themselves.

But don't be surprised if your child resists counseling. He may view his perfectionism as a strength, rather than a weakness, and may not want to give it up.

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Stress Relievers

Here are some tips for combating perfectionism in your young teen:

* Have realistic expectations. Don't expect your child to be able to do things as well as you.

* Acknowledge your child's accomplishments, however small, and avoid being critical of faults. If your child gets an A-minus on a paper, praise the achievement and don't ask, "Why the minus?"

* Don't push your child to excel to perfection. Let him or her try lots of different activities, even if the child's not good at them. Young teens learn about their strengths, weaknesses and interests by experimenting.

* Model non-perfectionist behavior. Children are much more likely to do as you do, rather than as you say.

* Talk about your own vulnerabilities. If your child sees that you have weaknesses and self-doubts, it gives permission to the child to have them too.

* Have a running dialogue with your young teen, making sure that perfectionism isn't making the teen lose sight of the big picture.

* If you think your child is a perfectionist, voice your concern, using concrete examples ("I'm worried that you are putting too much pressure on yourself to do a good job on your history project"). Ask if you are contributing to the problem and use humor whenever possible. Delineate the difference between perfectionism and the drive to achieve.

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