A perfectionist. “A person that refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.” Does this sound like your child? Or you? Perfectionism seems to be an applauded trait. Of course, employers and schools would like their people to take particular care with their work and always turn it in without any errors.
But there is a dark side to this.
Fear. Unrealistic pressure. Anxiety. An inner mindset that you must be perfect at all costs, otherwise you are a failure. This leads to avoiding anything “risky”, quitting, depression, anxiety, guilt, frustration, procrastination, ad infinitum.
Some signs that your child (or you) are a perfectionist?
- Being overly cautious.
- Asking a lot of questions.
- Getting upset after failing to meet unrealistic goals.
- Focusing on mistakes in a project, regardless of how minor the mistake and how great the success.
- Rigidity in feeling there is only one proper way to do a thing.
- All or nothing mentality.
There once was a 3 year old boy. His mother had set up paints for him to explore. He wasn’t a big fan of art. He always got frustrated that the pictures that came down on paper didn’t look like the fantastical images he had in his head.
That same boy at 6 didn’t like writing letters. He didn’t like the “risk” that a letter might get an extra loop. Or end up looking like a z when he was aiming for an s.
The parents of that little boy realized that they had to focus only on the process. They got paper and paints and let the child drive little metal cars through the paint, or splatter it with brushes. Anything that kept it from being goal-oriented. They were not going to get a coloring book that required coloring in the lines or say “draw me a picture of a dinosaur.” For letters, they let him draw in the dirt, or maybe paste over the error with another piece of paper, or use dry erase markers so they could be corrected easily. This wasn’t coddling, or giving a trophy to everyone for trying. This was providing play and growth in a way that allowed the child to boost his self-esteem while learning new skills. Learning shouldn’t be painful.
Perfectionism can appear in many different ways, but there are a variety of tools that you can use to help your child cope with the intense pressure and fear associated with perfectionism. We don’t want perfect kids, we want authentic ones. So here are some ways to help your kids, young and old.
“Good job.” “You are the smartest kid I know.” “You are the best insert whatever talent.” That is a lot of pressure. Some kids will stop painting if they are told they are the best painter ever because they know that each painting after will need to be greater and greater. Having to please others takes all of the joy out of loving something for yourself. Children should feel motivated to paint because they want to. This is called intrinsic motivation. They make choices because they are intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated by praise, pleasing others, or looking for an overly excited reaction. For more research on the detriments of praise and rewards, check out Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or Unconditional Parenting.
Foster a “growth mindset.”
Move from the rigid “I can’t” to the positive “I can if I practice.” In a fixed mindset, people believe that whatever intelligence or talents they have are fixed. They are dumb or smart. They can sing or they can’t. People with a fixed mindset are less likely to try new things or challenge themselves to grow. In a growth mindset, people believe that their intelligence and talents are just a jumping off point. They believe with hard work and effort they can grow and learn new skills.
All people should be guaranteed autonomy. They shouldn’t be forced to sit at a table and complete work, or forced to hug someone they don’t want to, or forced to do anything with their bodies that they don’t want to do. Allowing them autonomy will boost their self-esteem and independence.
Practice attachment parenting.
Practice attachment parenting and throw out punishments, especially related to achievements. No “getting grounded” because of a poor grade. Empathize, connect, and work together to problem solve.
Address the fear directly.
Don’t talk a lot or tell your child how smart they are. Just listen. Let them hate painting. Let them hate you and the sky and the world. Let them rage and shout and cry. No amount of talking or lessons will get through to them when the weight of all of the pressures and fears are crashing down on them. Just be present. They might cry for a long time but those fears are mixed in the tears and are coming out of their bodies leaving healing and a space to grow.
Play hard, physically.
Rough and tumble play is good for kids. It will probably lead to crying, but that is a good thing. They need to cry and let those fears out instead of holding them in. When you are playing like this, do it in a silly, ridiculous way. Bumbling around and trying to get the child, but never quite achieving it because you are stumbling and bumbling. Never defeat the child in this play. They already feel defeated and need this play to “get a win” and to release pent up feelings. Always be silly and goofy and not scary. A big cry will probably come. Move in and allow this huge upset.
Talk about mistakes and distorted perceptions.
Ask questions like what is the worst that would happen if xyz happened. Or is this negative thought helpful and how? Is it unhelpful and how? Not to dismiss their fears, but to put it in perspective that their self-worth is not dependent on praise and achievement (make sure that this is being modeled in daily life; that their value isn’t based on achievements). Talk about unrealistic and realistic goals.
Move away from achievement-based schooling and parenting
(This could fall in line with praise, as well). Sometimes self-worth can get entangled with achievements and we don’t want our children to think they are only as valuable as what they can achieve rather than who they are as a person. You can move away from achievement-based schooling by de-emphasizing grades. Opt out of homework and tests. Or homeschool.
Talk about any issues, procrastination, or frustrations when emotions are NOT high.
As in don’t try and tell your child anything of worth when they are in the throes of frustration and anxiety (or a full blown meltdown). They won’t hear you. The message won’t come through. The rational human being has left the building and you need to wait for it to come back.
Model making mistakes.
Let your child see you stumble. Tell stories about times that you made mistakes. This can even bring on some healing giggles and give them comfort realizing and seeing someone they know and love messing up too. If you hide mistakes from your child, they will think you are perfect, and that they should be perfect too. If the mistake happens against the child, apologize.There are no cons to admitting to a mistake.
Emphasize process over product.
Celebrate learning and growth rather than straight A’s. Share joy during projects rather than just when they are complete.
Set achievable, bite-sized goals.
Short, medium, and long-term goals. Break down intimidating work into doable parts.
Check in regularly.
Check in with your kids, regardless of their age. How are they feeling about certain projects or classes or life? Connect with them often. Watch for signs of depression and anxiety and work together frequently to overcome obstacles.
Support and empathize with your child when they are down.
They don’t have a bad attitude. They have low self-esteem regarding the task at hand and need comfort and encouragement rather than harshness or punishment.
Perfectionist qualities won’t necessarily go away, as it’s usually part of their personality. A trait. A sensitivity. A mindset. But they can use these tendencies and view them as moldable. They can use tools and positive self-talk to become more resilient. They will learn to check in with themselves because of all of the practice and support they have had throughout their childhood. They will be able to assess if their expectations are unrealistic. They will know how to break down a massive project into manageable, smaller tasks. They will pursue their passions because they want to. They will probably still be meticulous with their work, but in a healthier way.
What are some of your tried and true methods for helping your perfectionist child?