“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?”
There is a lot we can do to help cultivate a more balanced view. We can help our perfectionist children to improve in what they do as well as tone down the negative sides of perfectionism. Perfectionists often have an inner critic which can lead to anxiety and depression, something we already know is on the rise amongst young people. We want to help perfectionists ditch the fear of failure and get out of a habit of being self-critical. Here are 5 ways to get started:
- Focus on high standards and not perfection
Kids pay attention to what we pay attention to. It’s a way of looking at learning that is acutely aware of the learning process. Think: practice make 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.
“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.”
- The power of “YET”
Kids need to know that talent alone isn’t enough to be successful. No matter how talented we are – it’s struggle and effort that gets results. When your kids were little you probably focused on praising them for persevering with tying their shoes laces. They struggled, and with your help and encouragement they learned to keep on keeping on.
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 in a test can provide highly valuable insights into what is needed to ensure that things go differently in 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 mistakes.
The idea of balance in all things is not a new one. 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 we need to make a lot of mistakes in order to learn. Children need to learn how to learn. Perfectionists 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 these challenges is a good way to start showing your vulnerable side. Tell your child when things are complicated and that you aren’t sure about exactly what to do. It could be managing a work or home project or what to do about an elderly relative who may not be able to manage living on their own.
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 and this process can be very inefficient. When parents use these skills to focus attention on the process their experience and maturity 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
Focus on what went well and why, not just the results. Think of the first thing parents ask when their child comes home from a sports game. 10 points if you answered “Did you win?” Instead say:
“What was the hardest part of the game?”
“Did you listen to the coach?”
“Did you have 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 a reset button on negative self-talk
Perfectionists can have a harsh inner voice. Kids need us to help neutralise poisonous messages that can be going on in their heads, negative self-talk. Notice and mention when your child is striving to be the best that they can 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 learning experiences.
“I am a work in progress, I get there a little at a time, not all at once.”