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Effectively Treating Pathological Self-Criticism in Depressed & Dysthymic Clients
Effectively Treating Pathological Self-Criticism in Depressed and Dysthymic Clients

Section 22
Dealing with the Perfectionistic School Child

CEU Question 22 | CEU Test | Table of Contents
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Consultation with Parents and Teachers
In the consultation mode, school counselors will want to educate adults who come into contact with children about the multidimensional aspects of perfectionism. They can also make suggestions to parents and teachers for methods of reinforcing the positive aspects of perfectionism and addressing the negative aspects of perfectionism.

The first avenue of consulting with parents and teachers should involve disseminating information dispelling the myth of the unidimensional nature of perfectionism and educating them about the different aspects of perfectionism from a multidimensional perspective. By providing workshops and discussion groups in the form of parent forums and teacher in-services, the school counselor can lead adults and toward a more balanced viewpoint and away from the idea that perfectionism is necessarily a negative phenomenon that leads to impaired mental health in children and adolescents. In emphasizing the potential positive aspects of perfectionism, the school counselor can help parents and teachers begin to explore new ways of conceptualizing the perfectionistic traits of their children. It is essential in this psychoeducational process to stress that holding high standards and having a need for order can be helpful behaviors if they are not taken to an extreme and if the student does not experience anxiety related to the discrepancy between his or her standards and real-life circumstances.

In making suggestions to parents and teachers about interventions for helping perfectionistic children and adolescents gain more positive coping strategies for school, the counselor should emphasize the need for careful observation of students in order to determine which of the characteristics of perfectionism are in force. The counselor would base suggestions for intervention on an assessment of the balance of these factors.

Students who demonstrate predominantly the positive aspects of perfectionism. Concerned adults may not need to intervene with this student in any way. The only suggestion the counselor might give is for the parent(s) and/or teacher(s) to encourage the child to continue in this pattern of attitude and behavior and to watch for possible incursions of anxiety about the discrepancy between the high standards and actual performance.

Students who demonstrate some characteristics of both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. The counselor may make suggestions to involved adults about helping the student change some of his or her attitudes or beliefs. One method that could work with these children and adolescents would be to help them move toward more realistically assessing their own ability to live up to their standards. This would involve examining their past performance and deciding what is truly possible in terms of performance in the future. Sometimes it is helpful to the student to actually make a chart or graph his or her past expectations compared with the actual performance, in order to have a visual representation of the discrepancy.

Another method used successfully with these children is teaching them relaxation techniques, so that they can feel more in control of their anxiety and reduce their need to avoid making mistakes (Adderholdt-Elliott, 1987). It would also be helpful to work with these students on changing some of their self-talk, so that they would reduce their tendency toward extreme self-criticism (Antony & Swinson, 1998).

Students who demonstrate predominantly the characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism. These students are at high risk for depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and other psychological problems that affect their entire lives, not just performance and adjustment in school. In consulting with the adults who come into contact with children at this extreme of the perfectionism continuum, it would probably be appropriate for the school counselor to refer them for work with a mental health professional on the underlying issues related to these difficulties.

While direct counseling services can be invaluable to perfectionistic students, it is essential for the school counselor to do the same type of initial assessment of the balance of adaptive and maladaptive factors involved.

Students who demonstrate predominantly positive behaviors related to perfectionism. The counselor will probably only provide very limited counseling services, focused on encouragement for continued high standards and reasonable self-criticism. These students may be excellent candidates for serving as models to other students, especially those who have a tendency toward the less constructive side of perfectionism and those who have a tendency toward underachievement. It would be important to include these students in a group as models (Muro & Kottman, 1995), if the counselor were going to do a group for maladaptive perfectionists.

Students who demonstrate both positive and negative attitudes and behaviors related to perfectionism. The counselor will probably want to provide some kind of on-going counseling services either in a group or in individual sessions. The counselor can help these children learn to separate behavior and performance from personhood. For instance, the counselor can help students see themselves as "A" people even if all of their grades are not perfect As. Through the use of puppets, metaphors, role plays, and other active counseling strategies, the counselor can help students explore how maladaptive perfectionistic attitudes and behaviors can limit the scope of their scholastic and extracurricular opportunities, resulting in reduced life satisfaction. These counseling techniques can also be used to reinforce the positive aspects of appropriately high standards and order. Some examples of strategies that are appropriate with these children include:

  • Use puppets to model ways for students to appropriately set high standards, but not get overly self-critical at times when their performance does not meet those standards.
  • Tell a story about a giraffe that tries to reach the highest leaves, but tells himself that he did his best when he cannot reach them.
  • Give students scenarios in which they must decide what kinds of standards to set for themselves (including academic, social, and athletic situations). Have them role-play or brainstorm how they would handle the situation if they did meet those standards and if they did not meet them.

Recent researchers have suggested that there are both adaptive and maladaptive components of perfectionism. It is important for the school counselor not to intervene to decrease levels of perfectionism that are actually adaptive and contribute to the well-being of the student. As Slaney and Ashby's (1996) research with adult perfectionists suggests, students may not want or need to give up their perfectionism. However, they might profit from the reduction of those facets of their perfectionism that are maladaptive such as harsh self-criticism and fear of mistakes.

- Kottman, Terry; Perfectionistic Children and Adolescents: Implications for School Counselors; Professional School Counseling; Feb 2000; Vol. 3; Issue 3.

Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information regarding how to deal with a perfectionistic school child.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
What are two facets of self-criticism that are maladaptive, and can be harmful to students? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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