Perfectionism – frequently asked questions

We regularly get asked about how to assist children who are perfectionists, especially when this leads to procrastination or avoidance of any challenging new task.

Here are some of the recurrent questions we get.



  • We struggle with our child taking everything so literally – e.g. – When we are going on a trip in the car, they may ask what time we will arrive, and we may give an estimate of when we will get there. If we arrive slightly later than the time we have told them, they have a meltdown. How do we work with that?
    • Start teaching them approximates, and the reasons why we cannot exactly predict when we are getting there etc. Get them to help calculate the time and see who makes the closest guess.
    • Make a game out of sayings people have which are not literal, such as “keep your eyes peeled”, “shake a leg”… try to guess what they really mean.
  • Life is so difficult with the rigid bedtime routine – if we go out and come home late, we have a meltdown if we don’t read a book, even though everyone is really tired and they need their sleep. What can I do?
    • Read the book anyway. You have set a routine, and 5 mins reading will be better than an hour meltdown
    • Warn them in advance that there won’t be time for a book tonight.
    • Perhaps suggest that someone tells a story as you are driving instead of a book that evening.
    • Introduce some level of variation into the bedtime routine so they become more flexible as they mature.
  • My child is constantly using the words ‘everyone’, ‘no-one’ etc and generalising things. How do I cope with that?
    • When they use the generalisation, ask them if it truly is ‘everyone’? 
    • Ask them to tell you who actually has that when they say “everyone has this”. Name names!
    • Think of exceptions or challenge them to see if what they are saying is true.



  • My child has great ideas, but perfectionism seems to get in the way of them producing written work? 
    • Discussing the topic and their ideas before attempting to start writing
    • Us mind maps to record their ideas as a starting point to the writing process. This means they don’t have to make decisions about the sequencing of the writing before they start, they can do this once the ideas are on the mind map
    • Use a graphic organiser for the particular genre they need to write to help with the planning process
    • Teach them to touch type, and while they are learning scribe for them on a computer and then get them to do the editing.  Or use voice to text software
  • My child takes forever to get their homework done, could this be perfectionism?  How can I help them?
    • Yes, it may be perfectionism, but there may be other reasons so it is important to try to work out why. It may be that they don’t really understand what is being asked or how to do it. It may be that they have some underlying developmental difficulties that mean by the time they get home to start their homework they are mentally and emotionally exhausted. It might be that they are frustrated because the work is too easy, and they have already spent the day doing easy work.
    • If it is an aspect of perfectionism it may also be poor task initiation skills, not knowing where to start. Unrealistic expectations, expecting that what is needed is far greater than what is actually required, and so feeling that they just won’t have the time to do it. Poor prioritising/planning skills, having too many ideas and not knowing what to choose.
    • Identifying the underlying reason and then helping them to use suitable strategies in line with that can help.
  • My daughter, despite having a fast processing speed, takes so much care with her work that it impacts her time in class. Is there anything involving time constraints you can suggest to help? 
    • Processing speed as measured by an IQ test doesn’t really relate to the production of school work but rather the speed and accuracy of visual identification, decision making, and decision implementation. Performance on the PSI is related to visual scanning, visual discrimination, short-term visual memory, visuomotor coordination, and concentration.  It is responding to visual stimulus, and communicated verbally. It is also conducted in a clinical environment, with the one to one attention of an adult who is giving them challenging activities, which they often find very engaging, and are keen to do well.
    • Taking care in her work and wanting to do it very well, is a different matter, and some of the suggestions above could be implemented to help her with the planning, time management and  realistic  goal setting needed to complete school tasks.



  • Should I rush in before a mistake happens or just let them make a mistake that will end in tears?
    • I guess it depends on what sort of mistake it is. We would not let them run onto the road for example. But in general, and if possible, let mistakes have natural consequences. 
    • Pay attention to what is happening and observe if your child is learning from these mistakes or if they are placing the blame outside of themselves. If the latter, you may need to follow up with some discussion about learning and the brain. Especially about how the struggle and the mistakes are what makes us learn. We can’t learn something we already know! 
    • But also, check to see if they think they already know, when they don’t.
  • If a child is really upset or embarrassed by a bad result on a test or some other thing that has happened, how can I talk to them without making it worse?
    • Looking at mistakes is always hard for some people, especially if they feel like they have no control over making them. Choose a time when they are calm to discuss the result. Be honest, but passionate.  
    • What we want to do with mistakes on tests, for example, is to look at mistakes as opportunities to find out what we don’t know yet. What sort of mistakes are we making? Why do we think they happened? It can be hard when the test itself is beyond your control, or if you cannot see it. 
    • Sometimes it can be as simple as teaching time management (have a watch), or dealing with anxiety around taking tests. 
    • Sometimes they are asked questions in ways that look like it is nothing they have been taught. How can you prepare a child to answer these sorts of questions? There’s a lot of resources for problem solving strategies (in Maths for example). In other areas, it may be learning revision strategies and using practice tests. 
    • Ask the teacher for help. If you are the teacher, providing opportunities outside of tests, to answer these types of questions.
  • My child loves writing, but I find lots of screwed up sheets of paper under her bed, with stories she has started and then thrown away, how can I help her?
    • Talk to her about her writing and why she is screwing them up and throwing them under her bed.  This was happening with a client of ours. In this case it was because she wasn’t happy with them and so didn’t want to share them, but wanted to keep them in case she wanted to go back to the ideas later. We suggested she could get a special folder for all her ‘drafts’, that no one else would look at the folder , but they would be there in case she decided to use them later – and it would be easier to find and use if neatly filed.  I also suggested the parents not get stressed about ‘wasting paper’ but provide as much as she needed.
    • We also talked about the different reasons we might write.  If she was writing for her own enjoyment then she didn’t need to share it with anyone until she was ready to – many authors would have many drafts that they discard throughout the writing process.  But if it was a school task, then there was a need to produce something that met the criteria, within the time frame that was set.
    • A strategy that a teacher I knew used, was to classify different workbooks with different coloured stickers.  In books with say a green sticker then the students were asked to do the very best work they could, the best writing, spelling, maths, handwriting etc, but that it was OK if they didn’t get the work finished. In the books with say a blue sticker then the students were asked to share their very best ideas, and things like handwriting, grammar and spelling were not as important.  This distinction was quite liberating.  Knowing the purpose of the activity can make it easier to know what to do.
  • How often should I practice something to ensure I master it?
    • This question is a little like how long is a piece of string? You need to practice and practice stretching until you not only know one strategy but have an understanding of the concept. 
    • For some kids a little practice is enough. For others it takes longer. 
    • One of the best ways to practice is to teach someone else.
  • How can I motivate my perfectionist child to persevere when she makes a mistake or feels she can’t do something, to put in the effort needed for learning? 
    • By explaining what is going on in the brain when we make a mistake, that this is when the brain makes new connections, this is when learning happens, can change the negative feeling about mistakes to seeing them as productive
    • Often the task they are undertaking holds no interest for them, it is just something the curriculum requires them to do.  It isn’t motivating.  Try to build up intrinsic interest or motivation about the task. Help her understand the purpose of the activity, link it to a real-world example of how the task is used or why school wants them to know this information.
    • For example times tables are useful when working out how much pay you should receive if you have a part time job. Being able to communicate in written form is important for a scientist to record their finding and apply for future research grants. Mathematicians need to document their calculations so that others can test them in order to verify the findings. Mathematics also helps you develop a part of your brain for analytical and logical thinking.
    • Don’t get emotionally caught up in their emotions, it isn’t your job to fix the situation, each of us needs to go through the struggle of overcoming not being able to do things yet. Rather help them look more rationally at the task, the time frame and what can be realistically achieved.
    • Celebrate mistakes as an identification of thing they still have to learn
    • Create a poster for the wall with examples celebrating when a mistake was made and someone in the family made the most of it.  E.g. a chocolate cake that flopped, was turned into a delicious dessert.
  • My children will just stop doing something once they have to actually put in any effort – If they don’t automatically know something, they are reluctant to continue trying to do it.  How can I help them get used to the discomfort of not knowing and therefore actively learning?
    • Help them to develop a growth mindset
    • Identify examples of where they needed to persevere in order to do something, such as walking, riding a bike, playing a musical instrument or a sport. Get then to think about the stages they went through from not being able to do it until they had mastered it.
    • Give them exposure/ experiences of needing to put in the hard yards, ideally with some task they are keen to be able to do, so there is an intrinsic drive to put in the effort.  Avoid bribes and rewards where possible.
    • Model the behaviour of pushing through the frustration and doing difficult things yourself. Perhaps have a family activity where you all have to do something outside your comfort zone.