Helping Your Perfectionist or Compulsive Child Relax

Why Do Children Behave in Perfectionist and Compulsive Ways?

  • To feel safe and secure: A child who is trying to feel she has power in her environment may attempt ritualistic or perfectionist behavior in order to make herself feel better. She may not have learned the proper responses to certain situations. Even though others judge their compulsive behavior as incorrect, she will continue to conform to rituals. 

  • To cope with guilt: A child may feel guilty about something and will try to ease her guilt by engaging in ritualistic or perfectionistic behavior. She becomes a model of virtue. She feels less guilty if she gets one hundred percent on every test, has a perfectly neat room, or counts every tree she passes on the way to school. Guilt-ridden children feel they have to work very hard to be worthwhile. They feel guilt over minor misdeeds and mistakes. They feel guilty if they have any leisure time. 

How to Prevent Perfectionistic and Compulsive Behavior

  • Help your child feel “good enough”: If your child feels adequate, he will not feel the need to be a perfectionist. He will feel worthwhile already. Compliment him on his achievements and encourage independence and decision making. Give him tasks that are challenging but achievable. In the book How to Help Children With Common Problems, Charles Schaefer says, “Frequently doing tasks for children undermines their self-confidence. It takes patience to wait while a young child fumbles at a task, but it’s worth it. Children learn to say to themselves, ‘That’s great, I did it by myself,’ and adult praise becomes less necessary.”

  • Encourage open expression of feelings: If your child can communicate openly and clearly, she is less likely to develop compulsive rituals which are used to indirectly express something. If you express your feelings openly, your child will behave similarly. A child who is afraid to show anger may be compelled to repeatedly line up objects and count them instead of yelling. Explain that saying how you feel makes you feel better.

What to Do if Your Child Displays Perfectionist or Compulsive Behavior

  • Substitute efficient behavior: Make the point with your child that compulsive or perfectionistic behavior is unnecessary and inefficient. Show him how he can use his time in more pleasant and constructive ways, rather than wasting time with rituals. 

  • Reward noncompulsive behavior: While your child’s compulsive behavior is diminishing, you should encourage and reward the open expression of feelings. You may be worried about the open expression of anxiety, worry, and anger. You may feel open expression of such emotions is harmful. Actually, it is “bottled-up” feelings that are harmful. Saying what you feel removes the anxiety and fear behind perfectionism. Help your compulsive child face situations and take direct action. The key to solving the problem is to praise and reward your child’s effective actions and to discourage ritualistic, ineffective behavior.