Way back when I first mentioned going to this conference, I flagged the session on perfectionism as one that interested me but also concerned me with its claim that parents were the cause of perfectionism. I would not have gone, except that in the end the session was combined with the overexcitabilities session. I’m glad I went, however. Here’s my report — sorry, it is pretty dry, I’m mainly typing my notes, or else I’d be at this all day!
The presenter was Sal Mendaglio of the Centre for Gifted Education at the University of Calgary. He is a researcher as well as a counselor, so he brought both aspects of his work to bear on the issue.
His counseling observations were that parents tended to offer perfectionism as a cause for a particular behavior, such as low achievement. Parents often identify perfectionism as an innate characteristic of giftedness, and [perhaps for that reason?] they tend to discuss perfectionism as a positive thing, even when they are naming it as a cause for undesired behavior.
He suggests that identifying perfectionism as the cause of a behavior is a “surface explanation” that deters parents from finding the real cause.
He observes that in theoretical literature on giftedness, perfectionism is sometimes described as a “differentiating characteristic of gfited children”: not neccessarily innate, but a quality that is part of the group of indicators for giftedness. In most of this work, perfectionism is a negative that needs to be worked on.
He noted that this theoretical connection between perfectionism and giftedness contradicts the research on perfectionism and giftedness, where the evidence suggests that perfectionism does not occur more frequently among gifted individuals than it does in other individuals.
In the question session, he mentioned being careful not to “pathologize” giftedness, and the inference I made was that if we define perfectionism as a pathology and as a quality of giftedness, we contribute to the notion of giftedness as a pathology rather than as simply a different way of being.
He stressed that perfectionism as a psychological concept is correlated with depression, suicide, eating disorder, and general psychopathology, so we cannot use the term lightly.
Then he drew some distinctions that I found useful for understanding his definition of perfectionism and how it develops.
First, he mentioned some “salient differentiating characteristics” of gifted individuals:
— analytic attitude
— heightened sensitivity
— heightened self-criticism
In other words, those qualities are innate to a gifted child and are not brought on by the environment (i.e., parents, other significant adults).
What parents influence is how those qualities are expressed. Parents may make the following negative contributions to the child’s development of perfectionism:
–set unrealistic expectations (easy to do with asynchronous children)
— give excessively frequent or negative feedback
— model excessive self-criticism
— respond with excessive emotionality
The good news, he stressed, was that because perfectionism is not innate, parents can also help. It is, in fact, the role of parents and other significant adults in the child’s life to help her learn to deal with her innate tendency to turn her analytical abilities on herself, and to be highly sensitive.
— Communicate expectations clearly so that the child knows appropriate standards. This was an area that I felt I could work on in a very practical way. What I took from this is that for some children no expectations can be as stressful as high expectations, because in the absence of guidelines from an adult, the child may assume that the ideal she can envision is the bar she must reach.
— Be very intentional in how they give negative feedback
— Accept that highly self-critical people will react strongly even to mere observations (e.g., “I see you’ve cleaned your room.”) I think my mom would agree with this one!
— Be very intentional in how they respond to a child’s emotionality (which is an innate characteristic of giftedness). A strong reaction from a child does not require a strong reaction from the parent, or an immediate reaction.
— Avoid stepping into the role of the therapist. Rather than trying to analyze or advise a child who is saying “I’m so dumb” when she makes a mistake, simply be a nuturing, loving presence. This was a very good reminder for me — being analytical myself, and because we live in a culture of “therapy-speak,” I find it easy to try to play the psychologist rather than simply being a loving mother. I liked that Dr. Mendaglio was very direct in not offering specific words to say in these situations. In response to a parent question, he said, “The words are not important. What’s important is the attitude and that you demonstrate that your child is loved unconditionally.”
This was a lovely theme that was repeated throughout the day: there is nothing you can do for your child that is more important than assuring them of your unconditional love and support.
p.s. Research references available upon request.