This blog post features a letter that was submitted by a parent this month:
I have a 13 year old daughter with perfectionism, which is a problem. In June, she refused to hand in a test she was writing to the teacher and crumpled it up. In the process she was disrespectful to the teacher. I know she found this particular math unit tough but she has had similar reactions in the past when she doesn’t meet her own standards. I am worried about the new school year and her future. Should I take away a privilege for the disrespectful behaviours when this happens? In the instance above I had her write a note to the teacher with an explanation. Any thoughts would be appreciated.
Perfectionism is a crippling problem for many children and adults alike. Often we have the mistaken belief that we must be perfect in order to be worthwhile. That means the perfectionist has a mistaken belief that mistakes de-value your worth. This of course is not true, as every human being is fully worthwhile from the minute they are born. Our worth as a human is not tied to our accomplishments. We may improve our skills but we don’t become “more worthwhile”. Your daughter felt if the teacher saw her math test, she would be judged, not for her math abilities – but judged as a person. Feeling she was under-performing on the test, she made the decision it was better NOT to hand in the test and face judgment day. If the teacher can’t mark the test – she can hide her flaws and protect her fragile ego. Your daughter is not aware of her psychic motivations, but we have some empathy as to why she behaves the way she does, given her faulty logic.
As the parent of a perfectionist, we have to work to correct this sticky thinking. At the age of 13 you can discuss this with her directly. But also be conscious of all the subtle messages that are sent to youth about the importance of performance – be it in school or on the sports field. Its easy to see how the deed and doer get blended. We have to help untangle those two entities. “I love you unconditionally and always, but I also see you are struggling with math. That only means you don’t know this math unit. It doesn’t mean you are less important, valuable or loveable. Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities to learn. You are mistaking your way to success in Mathematics”.
Carol Dweyk is the Stanford psychologist who has researched this topic extensively. She calls this phenomena Fixed vs Growth mindset and children can understand this concept and change their mind site almost immediately! Have a look: