The Courage to Be Imperfect

When attending the TCA conference back in October, I bet you can guess the #1 session that caught my attention?


The Courage to Be Imperfect: Reaching Children with Perfectionism Through Play

Presented and Research Completed by: Sinem Akay, M.S.Ed.

I mean where was this when I was a kid? For goodness sakes, my mom has TONS of stories about me lining up my My Little Ponies just to knock them all down and line them up again. OCD? Perfectionist? I think SO! Luckily, this has helping me become the crazy overzealous person I am today, but understanding perfectionism in children is important, so that we, as counselors, can help children become well-adapted.


Sinem’s presentation was divided into multiple parts and I’ll outline some of them here.

Definition of Perfectionism

  • Perfectionism is a personality characteristic that involves the tendency to place excessive emphasis on organization, the setting of and striving for high personal standards, critical self-evaluation, high concerns over mistakes, and doubts about the quality of personal[4]

Perfectionism is NOT a negative trait. We can skip the diagnosis and move to treatment plan . . . now I like the sounds of that.

Types of Perfectionism

Adaptive Perfectionism: adherence to high self-standards, order, and organization; freedom to be less precise; and experience positive feelings when a task is completed.

Maladaptive Perfectionism: high standards that never seem achievable, excessive self-criticism, completed projects are not enjoyed, and considerable anxiety about imperfections.

In general, self-criticism is associated with depression. Therefore, people experiencing maladaptive perfectionism are not only self-critical, but they are not even satisfied with work that is well done or high standards that have been achieved. People with maladaptive perfectionism are also at risk for anxiety disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Eating Disorders, or Social Phobia.


A lot can be done with parenting styles to help ease the anxiety that may result from Perfectionism.

Perfectionism and Parenting Styles

  • Children with adaptive perfectionism may have parents characterized as having high standards for their children, positive, supportive, and encouraging.
  • On the other hand, children classified as having maladaptive perfectionism may experience parents who have unreasonably high standards, harsh, critical, controlling, and demanding.

How do I Identify Maladaptive Perfectionism in Children?

This is where, as a former teacher, I wish I had some of this knowledge. A lot of these behaviors can be found in the classroom. If we know how to better respond to these children and their needs, then we are better able to help them move from maladaptive behaviors to adaptive ones, thus promoting the idea of perfectionism being a positive character trait!

Identifying Behaviors:

  • Overly serious about their schoolwork and other tasks
  • Frustrated when things do not go as they would like
  • Hesitant to engage in activities that may result in a “mess”
  • Extremely self-critical
  • Psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, depression,[2]

Perfectionism in the Play Room

Scared of:

  • Making mistakes and getting things wrong – Children will spend a lot of time drawing or trying to put away toys “where they belong”
  • Getting in trouble for being imperfect – Children will be afraid to play because of the mess they’ll make. They will continuously check in with the counselor while exploring the play room/toys
  • Not living up to the high standards of others – Children will make something and knock it over claiming that, “It doesn’t look good.”

Common behaviors in the play room:

  • Seldomly try new things
  • Give up on activities that become frustrating or that do not come easily to them
  • Generalize that all struggle makes them “losers” or failuresphoto[3]

Play Therapy Skills for Perfectionism

Reflection of Feeling and Meaning

Just as you would with any play therapy, focus on helping the child feel understood. Allow them to feel as though their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are understood. “You are really mad at yourself because you do not feel like you completed the puzzle correctly.”

By showing your understanding and appreciation for the person they are, you can encourage adaptive behaviors. “You were worried about getting dirty in the sand tray, but now you are enjoying it.”


Use your reflections to step outside the ongoing interaction and comment on the overt behaviors. ” You looked at me to see what I thought about you pulling out the play-doh to play with.”


Quite simply . . . model imperfection (yes, I will admit this is hard for me). “Oh, look I forgot to get out more crayons for you. Sometimes I can be forgetful. But that’s okay mistakes happen. I will remember next time.” That phrase, “Mistakes happen,” is said often in my room.

A very well-modeled phrase came from my counseling professor who used to always tell me, “Let go and let God.” I literally repeat this to myself 100 times a day. Try it, it is very freeing!

Story Telling and Metaphors

Use indirect suggestions that prompt the child to analyze their maladaptive behaviors. The best way to do this with younger children are through books/story time. Sinem recommended: Ish by Peter Reynolds and Nobody’s Perfect, Not Even My Mom by Norma Simon. On that note, I should probably add these books to my “book list.” You should see this list. It’s PAGES long!


Invite children to play with materials and toys that they cannot easily control or predict and those that are “impossible” to get right, such as paint, finger paint, clay, chance games, etc.


Returning Responsibility to the Child

This is another play therapy must. No matter what child you are working with, it is important to return the responsibility back to the child. Help the child to practice taking risks and making mistakes, refuse to take responsibility for their actions, decisions, and behaviors. If they can’t open something, DO NOT, in any way, shape, or form, open it for them. Trust me, children have quite the way of making you believe that they “can’t do it,” well, trust me when I tell you YES THEY CAN, and make them do it! Encourage frustration and facilitate overcoming a challenge.

Encouragement vs. Praise

This is another key to play therapy. There is no place for praise in the play room. Avoid statements such as great, good, or nicely done. Effort should be encouraged, especially when they begin to overcome something difficult or new. “You decided that you could try that by yourself.” “You must be proud of yourself for doing that all by yourself.” I never, EVER tell a child that I am proud of them. This does not build inner self-confidence, this only builds a child who is willing to work for external praise and compliments. Instead, I say things like, “I can tell you are proud of yourself,” “You must be proud that,” “It feels good to do something that is difficult,” etc.

Remember: Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

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