“My daughter is doing well academically and excels in many subjects. I am concerned about her perfectionist tendencies. Her reaction to what I see as minor setbacks is out of proportion. When she got a less than perfect result in a test recently she took it very badly. It was like the end of the world to her. I can’t see the point of being a perfectionist so it’s hard for me to take her reaction seriously, even though I can see she is deeply upset. How can I encourage her to have a more balanced view?”
Perfectionists tend to have a harsh inner critic shaping their self-regard. This can lead to anxiety and depression, something we already know is on the rise amongst young people. As parents, we want to help our children ditch the fear of failure and get out of the habit of being self-critical. There is a lot we can do to help cultivate a more balanced view. It’s not a quick-fix, but we can help our perfectionist children to stay motivated by achievement while toning down the negative sides of perfectionism. Here are 5 ways to get started:
- Focus On High Standards Not Perfection
Kids pay attention to what we pay attention to. A change in our attitude can lead to a change in theirs. It’s important to look at learning in a way that’s aware of the learning process.
Think: practice makes progress. This requires a real shift in focus for those of us who may have been told that practice makes perfect. Excellence is about feeling happy and interested in what we are learning.
Keep goals specific and achievable for your child. Once you have broken tasks into smaller chunks you can give specific targeted praise (called descriptive praise) to help keep them focused on the process. Targeted praise sounds like:
“I saw a lot of hard work going on when you were thinking about that complicated maths question. You took your time and used the scrap paper to try out some ideas rather than just guessing.”
- Embrace The Power Of “YET”
Kids need to know that talent alone isn’t enough to be successful. No matter how talented we are, in the end it’s struggle and effort that get results. When your kids were little you probably praised them for persevering with tough challenges like tying their shoelaces. They struggled, and with your help and encouragement they learned to keep on keeping on. Well, children of all ages (not to mention adults) benefit from that type of praise and encouragement, so keep it up!
At different times all children will have challenges. A child who did well in primary school may find that in high school (where the work gets harder and the environment is less personal) a whole new set of challenges arise. Perfectionists may spend a lot of their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing it.
Getting a poor result on a test is disappointing of course. However, it can provide a highly valuable insight into what is needed for a better result in the future. We just haven’t mastered a task or skill….yet.Parents can focus on strategies and skills that are needed to be successful. Encourage critical thinking skills by focusing on what your child’s strategy could be:
“How could that go differently next time?”
“You’re really determined to improve your test result – what could you think of as a good strategy to help remember the material?”
- Model Making (And Learning From) Mistakes.
The concept of balance in all things is not a new one. Way back in the 3rd century B.C.E., Aristotle talked about the golden mean as the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example courage is a virtue but if taken to excess would be recklessness or at the other end of the spectrum cowardice.
It might be obvious to adults that mistakes are necessary in order to learn. But children need to learn how to learn. Perfectionist children spend a huge amount of their time and energy avoiding mistakes. Where does this view come from? Children sometimes believe that adults around them are perfect. They don’t have the experience to know that we all get challenged.
As parents we tend not to talk to our children about our struggles and failures. Modelling challenges is a good way to start showing your vulnerable side. Tell your child when things are complicated and you aren’t sure about exactly what to do. It could be to do with managing a work or home project or even an interpersonal or family situation. And by all means, feel free to tell them about past mistakes:
“I’ll never forget the time I didn’t confirm a flight and had to spend the night at the airport!”
The fact that you survived to tell the tale is proof that mistakes aren’t the end of the world.
Another way we can show our struggle is by admitting that being a parent isn’t easy. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. An ideal thing to say when we slip up is:
“I am sorry when I shouted then. I feel frustrated when no one listens to me. I wish I had said…..”
Perfectionists use excessive amounts of energy avoiding mistakes, a process which can be very inefficient. By modelling balanced behaviour, drawing on experience and maturity, parents can help children understand that 20% of the effort will get us 80% of the results. It’s not easy to embrace less than perfect moments, we get there over time.
- Celebrate Successes (Especially The Small Ones)
Focus on what went well and why, not just the end results. Think of the first thing parents usually ask when their child comes home from a sports game…10 points if you answered “Did you win?” Of course, that type of question teaches children the result is more important than the process. So, instead try saying:
“What was the hardest part of the game?”
“Did you listen to the coach?”
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
When we pay attention to the process by asking questions like this we are showing we aren’t only looking at the results. Focusing on effort and attitude helps to develop awareness about what went well and why.
- Press The Reset Button On Negative Self-Talk
Perfectionists tend to have a harsh inner voice. Kids need us to help neutralise poisonous messages that can be going on in their heads, the negative self-talk. Notice and mention when your child is striving to be the best that they can be and help them to develop self-compassion by using kind and loving words. When parents use kind and loving words to describe their child these sorts of words become their inner voice.
Look for a quality or characteristic that your child shows that makes them unique and help build a positive self-image:
“When you helped me carry the groceries – it was kind and thoughtful.”
“I liked the way you set the table without me asking, that’s helpful. You’re getting very mature.”
“When you read your book to me you were using a lot of expression in your voice. You’re very enthusiastic about your reading.”
Focus on the process and use these skills on a regular basis to help children shape a healthy view of themselves and their own learning experiences.
“I am a work in progress, I get there a little at a time, not all at once.”