People don’t often think of kids with ADHD as perfectionists. On the surface, it might seem like kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) race through homework and ignore details without worrying about the consequences.
But some kids with ADHD, both boys and girls, are perfectionists. And that can be as hard to manage as other ADHD behaviors.
Perfectionism isn’t just trying to do a good job. It’s being too anxious about small details and getting stuck in ways that make it hard to get things done in a reasonable amount of 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 sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) than of ADHD. (The two commonly co-occur.) And while OCD and ADHD are very different, they share some symptoms.
One sign they have in common is the tendency to get stuck thinking about things over and over. For example, kids with ADHD often have trouble shifting focus from one task to another.
Kids with ADHD can also be hyperfocused on a project they’re doing for class. They may spend way 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 schoolwork
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 get 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 also create anxiety. Kids may worry far in advance about an upcoming assignment or test. (It’s also very common for kids to have both ADHD and anxiety.)
Since kids with ADHD often have trouble managing their emotions, these feelings may be more intense than for other kids. Feelings may also last longer than they would in kids who don’t have ADHD.
How to help your child cope with perfectionism
If your child with ADHD is a perfectionist, you may be frustrated, too. Thankfully, there are ways you can help your child 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 performance. With kids who are perfectionists, it’s better to praise effort and help them avoid focusing too much on details that don’t really matter.
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 your child adjust expectations. Point out the difference between a realistic and an unrealistic standard. For instance, if your child has been struggling to make an essay sound “sophisticated,” talk about what’s typical for kids of different ages. (Ask your child’s teacher if there’s a good source for writing samples to use as examples.) 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.”