August 4, 2003
When The Demands of School Return
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- In the pantheon of parental worries, a child who performs well in school and has good academic focus isn't usually a cause for concern. But even kids with stellar report cards can find the start of school stressful, a Smith College psychologist cautions.
"Kids who set very high standards for themselves and who see any mistakes or shortfalls as evidence of personal failure, may be at increased risk of emotional distress when the demands of school return," explains Patricia DiBartolo, associate professor of psychology at Smith and an expert on social anxiety disorders.
DiBartolo emphasizes that setting high standards is not the problem. Rather, the distress arises when kids can't accept inevitable mistakes in the course of learning.
Children who set high standards but who tolerate their own less-than-perfect performance are "achievement strivers," in DiBartolo's terms, and she doesn't worry much about them. They tend to have a healthy sense of self. But she's finding that perfectionistic kids, like their adult counterparts, are vulnerable to anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
DiBartolo's current research examines the rarely explored issue of perfectionism in children and its implications for children's responses to school. In a study of 36 kids in Grades 3 through 5, DiBartolo and a student research associate, Vanessa Grover, found that children who rated high on perfectionism exhibited markedly more anxiety and dissatisfaction with their performance on computer tasks than their low-perfectionism peers -- even when, on objective measures, both groups actually performed equally well.
Even before undertaking the computer tasks, the high-perfectionism kids predicted they would do less well than the low-perfectionism kids, suggesting a link to low self-esteem. And it didn't matter whether the task was difficult or easy -- the kids' predictions of their own performances were consistent.
"Perfectionistic kids get caught in a vicious cycle," DiBartolo explains. "When approaching a task or project, they feel less able to succeed, get anxious and then evaluate their performance more negatively than their nonperfectionistic peers."
Despite all of this negativity, DiBartolo
points out, perfectionistic kids end up performing just as well
as their counterparts. Even better, sometimes. But they still
leave the task feeling bad about themselves.
These anxieties can be debilitating, DiBartolo points out, given that "a primary purpose of education is to encounter and experience new things, attempt the unknown and make mistakes in the service of learning."
Ironically, DiBartolo notes, the methods and measures typically used in school settings -- exams, grades, high-stakes tests, honor rolls -- can, in some cases, reinforce perfectionistic tendencies in children who may be predisposed to them.
Perfectionism is recognized by psychologists
as a common correlate of social anxiety disorder, a psychiatric
condition that affects hundreds of thousands of American children
If untreated, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder can increase over time, DiBartolo says, hindering a child's natural progress and growth. Fortunately, DiBartolo notes, preemptive treatment can be effective in helping perfectionistic kids navigate the normal challenges of the school day with calm and resolve, speak in class and approach exams without tears or undue anxiety.
If perfectionistic behaviors develop to a debilitating level in a child, it may be time to obtain a clinical opinion. DiBartolo recommends seeking out a mental health professional experienced in working with children and adolescents. A typical therapy would focus on helping children develop a realistic sense of their own accomplishments and master their performance fears, even in the face of some degree of discomfort.
"In fact, children need to feel uncomfortable," she says. "It's an important developmental milestone to recognize that you can feel uncomfortable and actually function, that you can take risks, make mistakes and go forward."
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 55 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country.