Tips to Reduce Perfectionism for Gifted & 2e Youth

Although research shows gifted kids aren't more prone to perfectionism than typically developing kids, gifted kids often seem uncomfortable with the process of learning, particularly when learning feels hard.  In this article, I describe how focusing on processes can help reduce perfectionism and discomfort with learning.


These tips are based on motivation research and on my own experiences providing therapy, parenting a bright child, and learning to enjoy learning as I recovered from my own gifted perfectionism.

Gifted kids have a reputation for perfectionism and high internal standards.  Many gifted and twice-exceptional youngsters seem to learn new skills and information effortlessly, so it makes sense they can balk when something feels hard – they don’t get much practice persisting through hard things!


In my experience, tendencies towards “perfectionism” in gifted and twice-exceptional kids aren’t just about wanting things to be “perfect.”  Instead, these tendencies often look like:


Low frustration tolerance during activities that are unfamiliar or not easily mastered.  If a child tries something new and it doesn’t seem to come “naturally,” they may become frustrated easily and throw a tantrum, start crying, rip up their work, shut down, or refuse to continue.  


Reluctance to try things that are difficult. When a child perceives an activity as difficult, they may avoid the activity, refuse to participate, or put in minimal effort, usually to avoid a feeling of failure.


Self-criticism about mistakes or “failures.”  When a child makes a mistake or perceives something they did as a failure - when they fail to meet their own standards - they may call themselves stupid, say they are no good at the activity, say they hate themselves, or just cry and feel bad.  


Instead of thinking about these tendencies as purely “perfectionism,” I think it’s helpful to see how these behaviors indicate a child is uncomfortable with the process of learning.  There are many ways to help kids navigate their perfectionist tendencies, but in this article I want to highlight my favorite guiding principle: focus on the process.


Focus on the process


People often praise these kids’ amazing skills, quick learning, remarkable products, and impressive performances.  But over-focusing on abilities and outcomes can make it harder for gifted kids to handle situations where they don’t feel like quick, impressive learners.  It’s easy to inadvertently teach our gifted kids to be proud of doing things effortlessly, quickly, or naturally.  Instead, we want them to be proud of the process they used - of their strategies and persistence in the face of obstacles, however fleeting.  


How can you focus on the process?  

Narrate lots of processes!  Don’t try to reduce perfectionism by focusing only on traditional learning moments or times your child is frustrated.  Focus on processes throughout the day, so this way of thinking becomes natural.  We use a mental or physical process for everything we do, so you can use this strategy a lot.  For example, you could narrate your own process of making breakfast and incorporate the types of thinking you hope your child will internalize: “Okay, it’s time for breakfast.  Hm, what should we have for breakfast today?  At first I thought we could have toast, but I see we only have two slices and that’s not enough for everyone. Hm, now I’m not sure what to do.  Let me look in the fridge to see what we have.  We do have yogurt. I guess you and your sister could have toast because you love toast, and I’ll have yogurt because I really like yogurt.  That works!”  Narrating your own processes helps your child learn self-regulation, problem-solving, frustration tolerance, empathy, and resilience by hearing you talk through these processes again and again.  


Help them see that “effortless” learning isn’t effortless. Although gifted kids seem to learn things effortlessly, no one can truly learn something effortlessly!  Even when a kid learns something quickly, they experience a learning process.  Help them notice it.  “Wow, you read that book about spiders and now you’re telling me so many things you learned!”  “You know, when you started this app, you didn’t know how to solve that puzzle. You tried a few different ways and then you figured it out!” “You looked through your 6 times tables tonight and now you’ve got them memorized!  How does that feel? How neat that you’re going to learn your times tables all the way through 12 this year.” By emphasizing their learning process when your child is thriving, we help make the learning process feel good!  


Don’t over-focus on mistakes and failures.  A lot of educators and mental health professionals who promote a growth mindset focus heavily on the message that mistakes and failures are an important part of learning.  Mistakes and failures are important opportunities to learn, but I don’t think they should be the primary emphasis when working with a gifted kid.  Why?  These kids don’t fail or get stuck on their mistakes very often!  And mistakes are not the only way to learn.  Instead…

Point out strategies, help-seeking, and incremental steps. Instead of focusing on mistakes and failures with gifted kids, point out the processes they use naturally to support their learning when things are going smoothly.  The same processes will serve them well when learning gets tough, if you help build their awareness of their processes so they can use them on purpose.  Particularly helpful processes to point out include:

  • Shifting their strategy as needed: “Ah, you noticed that path on the maze was blocked, so you reversed your approach and tried a different path.” “Hm, that block didn’t fit the way you wanted, so you rotated it.” “I noticed you revised your intro paragraph a lot from the first draft; I think it works great now…how did you decide to do that?”

  • Seeking help (from people or other resources): “You wanted to know more about Neptune and you used the table of contents to find it in the book.” “Oooh yeah, ‘exemplify’ is a great word!  I’m glad you asked me what it means.” “I noticed you asked your brother to help you hold that so you could build it even taller. Cool!”

  • Learning in incremental steps: “You know so much about anacondas after watching that documentary! What do you want to learn next?” “Now you know H and Z and T!  You didn’t know those letters before and now you do!” “I’ve always enjoyed your stories, and recently you started adding a lot of dialogue. It’s neat to see you experimenting as a writer.”


When we focus on the process, it helps gifted kids and teens tolerate and appreciate their own process of learning, not-knowing, making mistakes, trying again, “failing,” and gradually improving.  Most people feel good and know they’re okay when they’re performing really well.  We want our kids to feel good and know they’re okay even when learning feels hard.


As you can see in the examples above, you can convey enthusiasm, adoration, appreciation, and enjoyment without ever praising your child’s intelligence or pressuring them to perform at a particular level or without snags along the way.  In fact, I think that focusing on the process is so powerful because it gives you a chance to delight in your child’s persistence and resilience with them!

If you're concerned about your child or teen's perfectionism or discomfort with the learning process, I can help you support them in new ways through a 1:1 parent consultation.