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Is your gifted student a perfectionist? Know the signs, and how to help!

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Mom helping little girl do homework.
You can help your child study.

As moms, we all want our children to be successful. Many kids are IQ tested in school now to see if they will qualify for a Gifted and Talented program. My daughter Atlantis was in one such program in Middle School, and it opened doors for her to take AP classes in High School.

When I was growing up, my sister and I were also tested for the Gifted and Talented program. We were one point apart in IQ scores, but that cutoff meant that she was gifted, and I wasn't. Throughout our school careers, that meant we had a slightly different experience of school. She thought of herself as smart, I didn't. Consequently, we diverged in terms of study habits, and later work habits as well.

Living with multiple gifted people over the years, I learned that along with giftedness also comes perfectionism. I feel like it is a trap, because 'perfect' is impossible.

When a gifted person has an essay due, they worry about it incessantly, procrastinate, then write the whole thing the night before, sometimes pulling an all-nighter.

When I had an essay due, I would start researching as soon as I got the assignment, write an outline based on the findings, and use my notes to write the paper, giving myself at least a week buffer with the due date in case there was a problem.

Did we have different study habits because of inherent gifted/ notgifted -ness? Or, because of social conditioning based on those labels?

What IQ Score is Considered Gifted?

According to Davidson Gifted, a screener for gifted children:

"The majority of the population will fall within an IQ of 85 – 115. The mean, or average, IQ is 100. A gifted child’s IQ will fall within these ranges:

  • Mildly gifted: 115 to 130

  • Moderately gifted: 130 to 145

  • Highly gifted: 145 to 160

  • Profoundly gifted: 160 or higher

These gifted IQ ranges are based on a standard bell curve. However, different IQ tests may influence this range as some test ceilings cap at 145. Additionally, different gifted professionals have used other terms, such as “exceptionally” gifted. While a universal consensus on these ranges and labels may not be reached, it is understood that students who deviate from the average IQ of 100 require special educational accommodations to meet their needs."

IQ score stands for "Intelligence Quotient" score, and is not based on knowledge, but on the type of reasoning that someone uses to solve different types of problems. That means, IQ score is relatively the same throughout your lifetime. So, if you are tested at age 5 or 55, your score will be pretty much the same.

Since I was tested when I was really young, I decided to take my IQ test again when I was prepping for this article. I tested myself again at the Brain Metrics Initiative. My score was 115, right at the bottom of the gifted range. (You can test yourself too, it is interesting) The test also breaks down different aspects of reasoning skills, so you can see how you do in each domain.

Domains of Intelligence

The term domains of intelligence sounds pretty confusing, but it basically means intelligence in different types of categories. For example, some people are good at math, art, music, science, reading maps, etc. Not everyone is good at everything, even the smartest person!

Think about the late and great Stephen Hawking. He was probably the greatest intellect of our time, but he could never have competed for an Olympic medal in the high jump. Does that make sense?

According to the Multiple Intelligences Theory (Gardner, 2000), there are "eight different types of intelligences consisting of: Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and Naturalist. Gardner notes that the linguistic and logical-mathematical modalities are most typed valued in school and society." (Simply Psychology)

When someone is gifted, they may be gifted in any one, or several, categories.

According to the IQ test I took, it is measuring: Visual Perception, Abstract Reasoning, Pattern Recognition, Spatial Orientation, and Analytical Thinking.

Visual Perception is the visual - cognitive ability which allows us to organize, process and interpret visual information input so, that we can derive understanding and meaning from what we are experiencing.

Abstract Reasoning is the ability to process abstract ideas and understand new concepts without relying on prior acquired knowledge.

Pattern Recognition refers to the process of recognizing, identifying and categorizing complex arrangements of sensory stimuli into organized schemes in a way that facilitates memory storage and retrieval.

Spatial Orientation refers to the cognitive ability which allows you to understand spatial relations, meaning the ability to recognize and visualize the orientation of objects in space and make sense of their multiple relationships in a given environment.

Analytical Thinking is the capacity to break down available information into smaller parts, and then evaluate and weigh-up those parts in order to form logical solutions to problems or make sensible decisions based on evidence.

All of us have a different degree of intelligence and aptitude in each of these domains. A child that is gifted may excel in one, several, or all of these categories.

Notice, none of these domains of intelligence would indicate that a child would also have perfectionistic traits. Those are either a part of their personality, or something they are socially conditioned to embrace.


Picture of teens taking a test in a library.
Perfectionism can lead to test anxiety.

Before we delve into the combination of giftedness and perfectionism, I think it is important to understand what perfectionism is as well.

According to Medical News Today,:

Experts tend to define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” However, there are more nuances to this definition.

Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt are two leading authorities in the field of perfectionism, both of whom have studied this topic for decades. Flett is a professor in the Faculty of Health at York University in Ontario, Canada, and Hewitt is currently a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia (UBC), also in Canada.

Together, the two psychologists defined the three main facets of perfectionism in a landmark study they published almost 3 decades ago. They say that there is “self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism.”

So, looking at the research, you can see that with the three types of perfectionism, people have these habits for a variety of reasons. But, in all cases, there is a consequence to the desire for perfection. And, I would argue, a degree of self-harming.

Many people (probably perfectionists themselves) tout the value of perfectionism in their work, or at school. These are the kind of high-school students that excel in all their classes, have perfect grades, perfect test scores, and get accepted to the best colleges.

But there can be a dark side to a push for perfection too. Sometimes perfectionistic kids are busy burning the candle at both ends, trying to get into extracurriculars and internships, staying up all night studying, and turning to energy drinks or Adderall to stay up all night and go to school the next day. It is only possible to keep that up for a short time, eventually you crash.

One example I can think of like this is the Netflix series, The Queen's Gambit. It is a fictional story about a young girl that pushes herself to excel in the Chess world, and all of the missteps that she makes along the way. Hers is both a self-imposed perfectionism, and a perfectionism to please her mother. She was supporting her mother on playing chess from a young age, and that shaped her experience.

According to Medical News Today, perfectionism can have many dangerous pitfalls. Perfectionists can have many mental health issues including anxiety, depression, bipolar, and it is even associated with high rates of suicide. Perfectionism can have physical health risks also, including high blood pressure, and difficulty overcoming illnesses.

Giftedness & Perfectionism

Since I have spent most of my life living with perfectionists, I am going to go back now to the example of my sister and I, that I used at the beginning of this article.

According to Medical News Today, "socially prescribed perfectionism is the “most debilitating” of the three forms. In socially prescribed perfectionism, “individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.”

Anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are only some of the mental health problems that specialists have repeatedly linked with this form of perfectionism." If your child is experiencing any of this type of symptoms, it is best to consult a doctor immediately!

My sister was the gifted child, so she was expected to do everything perfectly, which is something she has internalized to this day from our dad (also a perfectionist).

I, on the other hand, never viewed myself as gifted, so at about age 14, I began to reject my parents' ideal of perfection, realizing that nothing I could ever do would be enough to win my love.

I believe that gifted people have a push toward perfection from society. From a young age, gifted children are set on a different academic path than other kids. They are put into special enrichment activities and AP classes.

They are taught that they need to do better, and work harder, than everyone else because they are gifted. I think, in this case, being special almost becomes a burden for them. Society has set such a high standard for them that they can't possibly live up to it, no matter how hard they push themselves to succeed.

Rage Quitting.

This isn't a term with a scientific basis in research. I got it from my gifted sister, who now teaches at a school for gifted students.

According to the Urban Dictionary, rage quitting is "A conditon in which gamers, through steady provoking, simply cannot take being killed (cheaply or otherwise) anymore and leave a online game game mid-match. Mostly occurs in multiplayer first person shooters. I.E Call Of Duty or Halo.

Warning signs preceding this action include

-The throwing of said gamers controller

-Rampant punching of a sofa/love seat

-Yelling at family members/roommates

-Letting loose a stream of expletives and complaining over in-game chat"

My sister says that a lot of her students, when they don't do something right, have a tendency to rage quit. I have also seen one of my perfectionist, lawyer friend rage quit her job. (Maybe she is gifted too?) They get fed up with things not going right, or a task not turning out the way they pictured in their head, and they refuse to go on.

It could be that gifted people see things in their beautiful minds in some way that is better than what could actually be created. Their efforts don't match their vision and they get angry. This seems like a symptom of perfectionism akin to what was talked about earlier with suicide in perfectionists. If something isn't going to be perfect, they give up.

And they give up in a drastic way.

What We Can Do as Parents

Picture of mom and little girl hugging.
Let kids know you love them no matter what.

As the child of a perfectionist, and the parent of a gifted child, I have consciously taken a different approach to my parenting than that of my own parents who pushed excessively.

As the parent of a gifted child, we have the ability to be the voice of normalcy in their achievement-driven life.

My daughter always gets sick at the beginning of the school year, around October, when her school and work is getting busy. I always tell her to make sure she is sleeping enough, eating healthy, and taking more vitamins. (I know, taking more vitamins is my answer to everything.) The more pressure kids are under, the more important it is for them to take care of their health.

For some good health behaviors to combat stress, check out this article:

Also, we have the ability to advocate for our child, both in school, and with their own behaviors. When we don't push for perfection, but instead let our kids know that they are loved and valued because of who they are and not what they achieve, we help them to move in a more positive and healthy direction.

Junior year, my daughter took 3 AP classes. When we went to the AP parent meeting at the start of the year, they outlined the amount of homework that was needed for each class. I told her to think about how much time she had, with work and other activities, to be able to do that amount of homework each day for each class. I know she prioritizes her job, so I wanted her to make sure she could strike a balance.

When my daughter struggled with her Calculus class, I asked her if she needed tutoring, or wanted me to talk to the teacher with her for additional assistance. I also reassured her that as long as she got a D, it probably wouldn't effect her college admittance, since AP classes up their GPA. She ended up studying with a friend and asked me not to intervene. She ended up with a C in the class, and I told her that she had done a great job with something that was obviously so hard.

In the same situation, a perfectionist parent would probably yelled or shamed her into doing anything possible to get a better grade. Or, possibly helicoptered and went into the school screaming at the teacher or the principal and asking them to change her grade.

The way that we talk to our kids matters. It's not any different with gifted kids. We need to let them know that our love and support isn't conditional on their achievement. As I have said before, (In the article Teaching Kids Positive Self Talk) when you praise them for hard work instead of qualities like being smart, it really helps them in the long run with their mental health.

The way we talk to our kids, especially from a young age, creates their inner monologue. With gifted kids, we tend to become hung up on their gifts, and neglect other aspects of their personality. By seeing them, and talking to them, as well-rounded individuals, we can provide protection from toxic perfectionism.

When it comes to my daughter, the bulk of our conversations don't revolve around her school work. We talk about her friends, her interests, and do cosplay or family game nights. Providing a sense of normalcy and love can hopefully help her to realize that she has value aside from her accomplishments, not only because of them.

If you are the parent of a gifted child, remember that they aren't just gifted, they are still children.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and if you struggle with perfectionism, or if you are also the parent of a gifted child. If there are any other topics that you would like me to cover in the future, please let me know that too!

Also, feel free to share this on your socials if this resonates with you. <3

Is your gifted child a perfectionist?  Know the signs and how to help.
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To read more about coping with stress, check out: Can your kids cope with stress?

If your child seems to still be persistently stressed after using these basic tips, they may be coping with Anxiety, and it could be best to consult a professional.

If your child is thinking about suicide, they (or you!) can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and speak with someone who can assist you 24/7. They may also provide referrals to community mental health.

For more about learning, check out:

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