People don’t often think of kids with ADHD as perfectionists. Kids with ADHD appear to race through homework without worrying about the results. They may also appear to have difficulties paying attention to detail and following through on projects or assignments.
But some kids with ADHD, both boys and girls, are perfectionists. And that can be as hard to manage as other behaviors people usually associate with ADHD. Perfectionism isn’t just trying to do a good job on a task. It’s being too anxious about small details and getting stuck in ways that make it hard to get the task done in a reasonable time.
Here’s what you need to know about ADHD and perfectionism, and how you can help your child.
ADHD and Obsessive Behavior
Extreme cases of perfectionism can be more a trait of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) than of ADHD. (These two disorders commonly co-occur.) And while OCD and ADHD are very different, they share some similar symptoms.
One behavior they have in common is the tendency to ruminate over things. This can be due to poor executive functioning skills. One example of this is the difficulty shifting focus that kids with ADHD often have.
Kids with ADHD may be hyperfocused on a project they’re doing for class. They may spend far too much time trying to make it just right. Or they might dwell on a not-so-great grade they got, going over and over what they could have done differently or better.
How Perfectionism Can Affect Academics
One of the areas where perfectionism shows up most often is in expressive writing. Kids might get stuck on the first line of a paper and keep working on it until it sounds “just right” to them. Then they get stuck in the same way on the following sentences.
Because of this, they have to write and rewrite until it’s just right. It’s tedious and time consuming, and kids often don’t complete the assignment because of it.
When it comes to math, kids might obsess over writing the numbers in a straight line. If they have erasure marks, they might choose to throw out the worksheet rather than hand it in looking that way.
How Perfectionism Can Create Frustration and Anxiety
Needing to do things in just the right way can cause kids to quickly become frustrated. They have a picture in their mind about how something should look, sound or work. And if what they produce doesn’t totally live up to that image, it’s not acceptable to them.
Needing to do something perfectly can create anxiety as well as frustration. Kids may worry in advance about doing well on an upcoming assignment or test. (It’s also very common for kids to have both ADHD and an anxiety disorder.)
Since kids with ADHD typically have trouble managing their emotions, these feelings may be more intense than for other kids. They may also last longer than they might in kids who don’t have ADHD.
How to Help Your Child Cope With Perfectionism
If your child with ADHD is a perfectionist, it may be hard to get him to go easy on himself all the time. But there are ways you can help him see that it’s OK to let go sometimes, and that things don’t have to be “perfect.”
- Avoid saying “just do your best.” The word best can lead your child to obsess even more about his performance. With a child who’s a perfectionist, it’s better to recognize good efforts and try to help him avoid focusing too much on little details that don’t really matter. You can remind him when he seems to be really overdoing it.
- Talk about when good is good enough. You can say something like, “There are some jobs that require very careful work. But a lot of things are OK just being ‘good enough.’ I can help you learn to tell the difference.”
- Help put things in perspective. Kids with ADHD often have trouble shifting their perspective from one situation to another. You can say things like, “If you’re just coloring for yourself, it doesn’t matter as much as when you’re making a birthday card for someone.”
- Enlist the teacher’s help. Share your concerns about your child’s perfectionism. (The teacher may have seen it, too.) Ask the teacher to reinforce the idea that making mistakes is part of learning, and not everything requires the same amount of detail or care.
- Help him adjust expectations. You can point out to your child when he’s holding himself to an unrealistic standard. For instance, if he’s been struggling to make an essay sound “sophisticated,” you can show him what is typical for kids of different ages. (Ask your child’s teacher if she has a good source for writing samples.) You can say, “What you’ve done on this is very good for someone your age. As you get older, you’ll be able to do even better.”
Read a personal story from a woman with ADHD who struggled with perfectionism as a child. And get to know signs of anxiety in kids.
Understanding some of the behaviors caused by ADHD may help you understand and help your child. Learn why some kids with ADHD tell frequent lies. And discover why your child with ADHD may be dealing with anger.