This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, answers the concerns of a parent who is growing concerned about their daughter’s obsessive behaviour
My husband and I having a disagreement about things we are observing in our daughter’s behavior. She is 10 and has a brother who is seven. Over the past couple of years she has become increasingly preoccupied with keeping her things, like her dolls and stuffed animals, in order. She has a certain place for each of them and if anyone touches them or moves them, as my son did last week, she becomes upset to a degree that has me worried. My husband thinks it is a good thing and that she is organised. He also thinks that, when she gets upset for having gotten 2 Bs when all her other grades were As at school, that it is a quality that will keep her focused on success. I am glad to see her do well, but am I wrong to worry that it seems to be too important to her right now. Is she becoming a perfectionist? Should we be doing something now, before it gets to be too much?
— Worried Mom
Hello Worried Mom,
Thank you for bringing up a good question about when to be concerned about your child’s behaviour. There is a lot more I would want to know before I could draw a conclusion about your daughter, but you have pointed to things that do represent ‘red flags’ — potential problems that need to be attended to.
It can be confusing when children are doing good things, being neat and organized and caring about their achievements at school — to a point where it is too rigid or controlled. Perfectionism is a term that refers to a way of being where a person refuses to accept any standard less than perfection. They can work compulsively toward unobtainable goals. They might also measure their self-esteem by their perception of their performance or accomplishments. Your daughter’s response to her grades suggests that she is measuring her success against what she sees as perfection — all As.
The difference between healthy and unhealthy striving is how it affects one’s perception of themselves. A person who seeks to attain high goals, but is able to feel internal satisfaction for having made an effort that falls short of perfect is placing the value on effort, something they can control. Conversely, a person who focuses on outcomes or productivity, which is often beyond one’s full control, is susceptible to self-judgment that damages or distorts one’s self esteem. They tend to measure themselves down from perfection rather than feeling good about the accomplishments they have made from their efforts and accepting that perfection is rarely attainable.
Control and order can be other signs of a ‘need’ to influence an outcome. Here again there is a healthy version of these actions — to keep things neat and organized. There is also an unhealthy compulsion to do the same. Perfectionists might become inflexible and overly concerned with an order that can’t be maintained. Not being in control might lead to feelings of frustration or anxiety, and behaviours that are compulsive. I agree with you that your daughter’s reaction to your son’s disruption of her ‘stuff’ suggests that she might be too vested in something that requires a little more flexibility.
I suggest you learn more about how she is thinking about these things by asking her why it is so important to her, both her grades and the order she creates. If she is showing signs of rigid thinking and self-judgment, help her to think further about the value of flexibility. Don’t hesitate to find a therapist who might also help her challenge her distorted assumptions and to accept herself and the imperfections of reality.
You might show your husband what I have written or look further into the topic of perfectionism with him online.
I wish you well.