The Frustration of Perfectionism

The start of our day hinged on the fateful sign at the entrance to Busch Gardens. My son would run ahead to see the sign and deliver the verdict. Of course, he wouldn’t really have to talk – the results were all over his face – and body! Smiles and excitement or tears and despair – all in response to which rides were open or closed that day. On windy days, his favorite ride, the Sky Ride, would be closed. There may even be your occasional repair or refurbishment that kept him away from his happiness focal point. The intensity of his response always surprised me, even when I expected it. This is when I Corinthians 13 came to life for me. When I can’t understand or relate to the struggles of my children, I turn to the one who can. “Love is patient, love is kind,…” My son certainly needed patience and kindness at that moment and in that very public place, it was hard to keep my supply flowing. Turning fully to God for an abundance of what I struggled to muster was essential.

For my little son, being prevented from riding this ride was personal. He would look forward to it from the minute he discovered a trip to Busch Gardens was in the offing, a fact I usually didn’t share until we were ready to go. His mind would begin to plan and anticipate what was to come, often without saying a word. In his understanding, there was only one scenario, only one way for this day to go, and his investment in that one plan was intense and definite. Of course, if anything diverted him from achieving his goal, it was beyond his ability to accept and reset his expectations without great frustration, tears, even anger and refusing to be comforted. There was nothing I could say that could help him cope or spare us the emotion. This was a real problem for us at the moment, but also for my little son to gain a grip on in the future.

It has been my experience that perfectionists envision perfect scenarios. They build perfect scenarios, often without communicating any of their wishes or desires with others, leaving those who could help them in the dark. Articulating their feelings is often very difficult for them, especially when they are young. The meltdown that occurs because your child can’t build the airplane the same way it looks on the box may seem unreasonable to you, but to your child, it is evidence that he cannot now, nor may he ever, build it correctly. And if that is the case, for him, there is no reason to try.

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I have observed perfectionist children put their heads down during a standardized test and cry because they were sure that they had gotten one wrong, throw away a written paper because of a stray mark or erasure or tear up a picture they were drawing because it didn’t look the way they thought it should. Again, how you feel about these events is irrelevant. All the encouragement in the world is not going to change how these children feel because they suspect you are not sincere – you are only saying what you are saying to be nice. What they perceive rules their reactions so this was the place to begin.

It took me lengthy observation and prayer to determine a course of action to help him recover from the derailments of life. First, we went to the Word. “We make our plans, but God orders our steps.” It was essential for my son to understand that it was okay to make plans, but that those plans had to be given to God because He loved him and would guide him perfectly. We memorized this Scripture. We talked about it at every opportune moment. This was his lifeline out of the ravages of disappointment. As time went on, this particular Scripture became both lifeline and life raft as my son weathered some trying disappointments. As a twelve-year-old baseball player he was throwing no-hitters (he was the pitcher and no one would get a hit) until his finger was closed in a car door. As we drove to the doctor, he threw himself on God’s mercy, trusting Him during this traumatic time. As he grew, when things would happen that he struggled to understand, this Scripture often served as preserver and encourager.

Next, I taught him to make a Plan B. Whenever we would make a plan, date, appointment, or agreement that involved something he was looking forward to doing, I immediately asked him to make a Plan B. What would he do if this thing did not work out? I required him to come up with a specific plan, offering suggestions if he needed them. If he were planning on having a friend over, what if the friend couldn’t come? I would help him choose a video or game that he could watch or play. Even though the disappointments were still, well, disappointing, he wasn’t left empty-handed. As time went by, I watched him learn to make his own Plan B. He came to realize that was preferable to wallowing in the pain of the moment. It gave him a strategy to overcome the circumstances and he always felt better when he had a plan. This again, helped him as he continued to grow.

Lastly, I came to understand how to share my opinion. Rather than trying to tell him that the paper was beautiful (which he would not accept because to him it was not beautiful!)  I learned to say that I thought it was beautiful. As I told him, my opinion is my own, and he could not change it anymore than I could change his opinion, but he must respect the rights of others to have opinions. This ended the frustrating arguments where I would try to compliment/encourage him and he would reject it. Now I would say that I thought it was beautiful and like it or not, he would have to let my opinion stand. Interestingly, when I no longer sought to change his opinion, he started giving my opinion more attention and consideration.

Just one more thing. When he was little, I explained to him that there were things that mommy and daddy would decide. He would not be given a choice in all things. God had placed us in charge of him and we were going to do the job that God had given us to do. When decisions came up, I would let him know if this decision qualified as one of ours. If it was not a decision we needed to make, then I let him know what his choices were and he would begin the often lengthy process of considering his options. Once I had given him his choice, I had to stand by my decision, no matter how challenging that might be. It’s amazing how difficult simple decisions could be for him, so I tried to consider them carefully. When there were choices, like food items, I gave him as much warning as I thought he could handle. Sudden demand decisions did not go all that well for him, since he would get flustered. Too much freedom and too many choices would wear him out, so routine and predictability were good friends to us all.

I believe God made children to be developmental beings. They grow and develop in different areas at different times and rates but all children have a perfect timetable from God. They are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and my job is to get in synch with the Author of that timetable. One of the blessings of parenting and homeschooling is the freedom to trust and rest in that timetable and plan. As my son grew by little steps I watched his confidence and capabilities grow as well. As I waited on him, I waited on God, knowing that all that he needed to mature would come his way, guided by the Father who loves us both.


Debbie Strayer is a veteran educator, speaker, author and home educator. She enjoys spending time with her husband of thirty-two years and her grown children. Dr. Ruth Beechick, too, has spent many years teaching and writing on education. She specializes in curriculum and in how children learn. She is mother of two and grandmother of four and loves working together with Debbie because they think alike on education matters. For more books and articles, see debbiestrayer.com.

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0 thoughts on “The Frustration of Perfectionism

  1. I have a perfectionist, too. I was nodding in agreement over the behaviors and the process of healing–on both ends. Love your perspective.

  2. When I read the title my first thought was…”Whose? Theirs or mine?” This article is so full of wisdom! Wisdom that I wish I had several years ago. I can still put it to use and will. Thank you very much!

  3. I have three perfectionist children I am trying raise and homeschool, all while being a perfectionist myself (and being married to a perfectionist…it’s in their genes, I suppose). Some days are so hard we all cry. A lot of people don’t realize the physical, emotional, and mental challenge of raising and educating children like this. Especially when my children are doing so well academically…they assume it must all be easy all the time. I have seen them roll their eyes if I try to talk about my struggles, or they sigh because they think having children who want to do things perfectly all the time sounds like a dream to them. I’ve gotten to where I really try not to discuss anything like this with others. Sigh.

    Anyway, I say all that to say that I love this article. You have offered some real solutions (things I can DO) to work on the problems I am facing and I am so very thankful you shared them. I am going to print them to show to my husband so that we can make a plan of action for our family.

  4. Oh my! Thank you so much for sharing this article with me this week at FPEA! It is an insight to my little boy and his world of perfectionism! I love the strategies you shared and will certainly use them as well! Praying it gives my little one relief!

  5. Every article that she writes is always such a help to our readers.
    Thanks for the comment Kimberly!

  6. This is such a lovely article! I thank God for helping Mrs. Debbie to write this! The strategies she has mentioned are going to be extremely helpful for us.

  7. Fantastic article. I especially love the part about telling your child some decisions are ours as parents and some are theirs. Simple concept, but a great one.