Perfectionism and ADHD: Why ‘good enough’ is better than perfect

Do you have a child or teen who needs to get things right or else? Perfectionism can be motivating and debilitating. While it’s admirable to want to do our best and strive for academic, social and professional success, many folks with ADHD go beyond this desire to do well. They create unrealistic standards of success, compare themselves negatively to Neurotypical peers and focus too much on the end result and not the process of getting there. Learning to aim for steadiness and ‘good enough’ can relieve pressure that kids put on themselves and that adults set for them as well. 

There are several helpful aspects of perfectionism that assist kids with ADHD to get started and keep going on tasks and projects. They want to achieve a personal standard, create a piece of work or express themselves with pride and satisfaction. Perfectionism also contributes to the productive side of worry. It helps people by encouraging planning and fostering initiation such as doing homework, getting to work on time or remembering to charge your phone. 

But, perfectionism also limits people, especially children and teens with ADHD. The unhelpful aspects of perfectionism include:

  • Self-criticism  (negative self-talk)
  • Rigidity (not completely right means failure)
  • Fear of disappointment (self or others)
  • Avoidance of failure (not trying because effort won’t earn desired result)
  • Sensitivity to feedback (defensiveness)
  • Discouragement/depression (low self-worth due to incomplete goals)

Perfectionism can exacerbate anxiety and reflect worry about things we think we cannot control. When kids have experienced previous struggles with chores, homework or class assignments, they worry about whether they can perform necessary tasks. They aren’t sure that they’ve got what it takes to do what is being asked of them. They are concerned about possible failure and want to avoid any embarrassment. If they struggle with organization and prioritizing, they don’t know where to begin and how to maintain perspective which makes things worse. Finn, age 16, tells me “ It’s hard to let go of the little stuff because everything is important.” 

This is where perfectionism procrastination kicks in. Kids with ADHD can be so immobilized by their worry about messing up that they don’t get started. They tell themselves “If I can’t get this just right, why bother?” They attempt to limit future mistakes and reduce potential shame by putting things off. This concern about humiliation combined with low self-confidence about their capability lie underneath perfectionism procrastination in Neurodiverse kids. 

Reframing the goals and how to proceed on meeting them reduces perfectionism. The first step is to keep things simple. When you break tasks down into smaller, do-able parts, kids are more likely to make efforts and keep trying–even if things aren’t exactly right. The stakes are lower because things are smaller and “mistakes” have less consequence or value. When they work on these tasks and complete them–imperfect but finished–they start to overcome perfectionism. 

When kids can accept that something is good enough, they start to build a standard to apply to bigger items. Of course, determining what is good enough comes from a collaborative conversation that might also include the school to set appropriate ideals. When they attempt and then complete these easier goals, they are learning the skills to accept the reality of imperfection that all of us deal with. There is a difference between accountability (owning and accepting what you do with honesty and calm) and perfectionism (needing everything to be a certain way and judging yourself negatively when it’s not). 

Together, set up a goal roadmap with your son or daughter. A goal roadmap lays out the trail of where you want to go and how to get there. Most children and teens with ADHD cannot do this themselves. They need you (or a coach, therapist or learning support person) to assist with mapping out the territory: what needs to be done when, what’s acceptable in terms of quality and quantity, what is most important and what is less relevant. Then you outline the manageable steps along the way. 

Focus on the process of living and learning: people are supposed to make errors, regroup and try again. You can’t say this too much to your child with ADHD. This is how learning occurs in the human brain. It fosters that essential growth mindset: one where they try things and derive value from efforting as much or more than outcome. We want to aid Neurodiverse kids in accepting themselves as normal because they are perfectly imperfect, with strengths and challenges. Just like the rest of us. 

Want to learn more?  Read more about ADHD