By Myles Cooley, Ph.D., author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator: How to Recognize, Understand, and Help Challenged (and Challenging) Students Succeed (Revised & Updated Edition)
Childhood depression has multiple causes. Genetics play a large role. Adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, poverty, trauma, or family mental illness or substance abuse can create depression. A child’s personality characteristics can also lead to depression. Perfectionism is one of these characteristics.
Some gifted kids may want to be—or think they’re supposed to be—perfect. Why? Because they are expected to live up to very high expectations, which they define as perfection. They think in all-or-nothing terms: “I’m either gifted (perfect) or not smart.” The problem, of course, is that perfection is impossible, and these kids will eventually fall short on some tasks. Because they think this means they’re not smart, they feel bad when it happens. The seeds of depression are planted.
Ironically, the label “gifted” may actually increase the likelihood that a child won’t perform according to expectations, which in turn increases the likelihood of the child feeling bad. A common reason for this is that many gifted kids have a fixed mindset. This is a term coined by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. A fixed mindset is a belief that intelligence is limited to what you were born with.
A fixed mindset can cause kids to become discouraged if they encounter difficulty because they think they’ve used up all their ability. They may avoid difficult subjects or tasks for fear they won’t live up to what’s expected of them. It’s safer for these kids to give up than it is to try and not succeed. Remember, they think that if they’re not perfect, they’re not smart.
So what can teachers and parents do to counter perfectionism and decrease the likelihood of depression in gifted (and all) kids?
Model imperfection. Point out when you make a mistake. Minimize its impact. Laugh and joke about it. Discuss how it can be corrected.
Emphasize being “good enough.” When a child expresses frustration or sadness at a lack of perfection, tell her that the result of her efforts was “good enough.” Explain that “good enough” doesn’t mean mediocre or average. It means doing the best you can do and that no one can be perfect.
Address all-or-nothing thinking. Help kids eliminate absolute thinking. Show how people are not either “smart” or “not smart.” Draw a vertical line with numbers from 1 to 100 representing people. Everyone’s abilities fall somewhere on the line, but even person #100 is not perfect and person #1 is still capable of certain things.
Emphasize a growth mindset. Explain that we are not limited by the brain we were born with. With commitment and perseverance, we’re capable of solving problems. We can find new strategies or ask for help from others.
Counter catastrophic thinking. Perfectionists tend to catastrophize. They think that if they’re not perfect, something horrible will happen or they won’t be accepted or loved. Help kids see mistakes and less-than-perfect performances in a realistic light by talking through these issues with them. Here’s an example:
Teacher: You didn’t look happy when I gave your test back.
Student: I only got a 94.
Teacher: And what does that mean?
Student: That’s not a high enough grade.
Teacher: What do you mean?
Student: I should have gotten 100.
Teacher: “Should have”?
Student: Well, I studied really hard and knew all the stuff.
Teacher: I see. Well, I guess there’s no guarantee that we’re going to get a perfect grade, even if we study very hard. Would it make more sense to say, “I wanted to get 100” instead of “I should have gotten 100”?
Student: Probably, but it doesn’t make me feel any better.
Teacher: Okay. Let’s look at what the problem is with getting a 94. What will happen?
Student: That won’t increase my grade in the class by as much as a 100 would.
Teacher: And what does that mean?
Student: My class grade may not be as high as I want.
Teacher: And what if your class grade is a bit lower than you want?
Student: I won’t like that.
Teacher: Okay. But will you still get a very good grade?
Teacher: So the worst that will happen is that you’ll be a little disappointed. The sky won’t fall, right? You won’t fail the class. You studied hard, which is commendable, and did the best you could. That’s really all we can expect of ourselves.
Student: I guess so.
Have children read a book on perfectionism. What to Do When Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism by Thomas Greenspon is an excellent book for kids 9 and older on causes of and remedies for perfectionism.
Myles L. Cooley, Ph.D., has been practicing psychology for over 30 years. He evaluates and treats children, adolescents, and adults for a variety of problems. Dr. Cooley serves as a consultant to schools and has presented educational programs to educators, mental health professionals, physicians, and parents.
Myles is the author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator.
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