"Let's face it: Perfectionism is something our society values highly," says Guido Frank, MD, a psychiatrist at Children's Hospital Colorado who specializes in eating disorders, anxiety and perfectionism.
For example, high stakes situations like flying and surgery need to run as perfectly as possible to keep everyone safe, he explains. In that context, "perfectionism, in itself, is of course not a bad thing, and in fact, is necessary and adaptive."
It becomes a problem, he says, when it fuels anxiety and depression; it can make someone feel like they are never good enough, or they can't enjoy the present accomplishment because they're worried about future failure. Any mistake affects them on a deeply personal level.
So when do you know if your child's perfectionism has gone from healthy ambition to unhealthy obsession?
When perfectionism becomes a problem
If your child is ambitious, works hard and strives for success, that is not necessarily a problem. It becomes one when they cannot stop striving for perfection. This might mean that a child who received an A is dissatisfied because it was not an A-plus; or it could be a child who won't ever celebrate a sports win because they didn't catch the ball every time.
Perfectionism is also common in children and adolescents who develop an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa. The perfectionist mindset combined with the drive to restrict food can cause life-threatening weight loss.
Keep an eye out for signs of unhealthy perfectionism: your child stops enjoying the things they usually like, they seem too stressed to handle the pressures on them or they limit or stop hanging out with friends.
What parents can do about a child yearning to be perfect
Kids can reverse unhealthy perfectionism with help from you, or from a professional if it's more serious. Unlike some psychological conditions, perfectionism doesn't usually stem from trauma or a life experience.
The number one thing to combat it, Dr. Frank says, is to talk with your kids. If you notice they are more focused than usual on achieving success, ask them about it. You can say something like, "I've noticed you haven't been happy about your A, and I got the feeling you were stressed about not getting an A-plus. What is happening that is keeping you from enjoying your success?" or "I'd like to understand why it's important that you achieve ____." Talk about people who became successful by managing mistakes. (Need examples? Check out this list from Business Insider of 29 famous people who failed before they succeeded.)
"If there's a culture of communication, then the kid can talk about how they feel and you will sense early whether there is a problem on the horizon," Dr. Frank says. "You can lay the foundation for preventing trouble."
Parents can also be aware of how they model behavior. If you have reasonable expectations and have a positive attitude about mistakes, that shows your kid that it's okay not to be perfect.
When to seek help for a child's perfectionism
If you're worried about your child, bring them to your pediatrician. It never hurts to have a professional evaluate your child; early intervention can help the condition from progressing.
Children can be genetically predisposed; if certain traits run in your family, like perfectionism or anxiety, or if someone in your family has had an eating disorder, it's especially important to pay attention to signs and have your child evaluated by a pediatrician if you think there could be problem.
"A parent knows their child best," Dr. Frank adds. "If you're sensitive to any changes with your child, changes in mood, behaviors, eating patterns, anything that comes up and concerns you, then you should follow-up on that."