My son is such a perfectionist. He gives up so easily and gets frustrated and even angry at himself when he makes a mistake or can’t do something perfectly on his first try. He literally cries over spilt milk. But more worrisome is school work. If his letters aren’t perfect he just crunches up the paper in a ball and wont’ try again. I think this attitude has to be dealt with now before it hurts his grades.
A not perfect mom
Dear Not Perfect,
You are wise to want to tackle this now, as perfectionism can really reduce one’s progress and enjoyment in life! Perfectionism is a form of rigid, absolutistic thinking. It’s also one half of the dualistic though that “if you are not perfect, you must be worthless”. Of course, this is not true at all, but it would help you understand why he gets so emotional when he makes a simple mistake like spilling milk. Young children are brilliant observers, but they do come up with some pretty lousy conclusions given the immaturity of their brain development. The thought “if I am to ensure my safety and worth, do everything perfectly” is a crumby formula for life. In fact, learning to embrace and learn from mistakes is one of the best formulas for life success! So, how do we go about changing his beliefs? How do we challenge his mistaken formula for worth? Here are a couple of suggestions, all of which you can tackle at your own pace over time.
1) Make More Mistakes
Kids often see adults as being these masterful giants who know how to do everything right. Demonstrate with grace and humour how to be sloppy and perform poorly at things. Model being curious and gentle with yourself when you fail. Make a mistake or do something haphazardly. Try phrases such as; “that’s good enough for me”, “that didn’t turn out the way I expected – oh well”, “Oops, that was an epic fail, but I am learning so much!”, or “I am mistaking my way to success!”.
2) Reflective listening and Meta-Communication
When a child has a mistaken belief, it is beyond their conscious awareness. One way to bring their belief into their conscious mind is to reflect back to them your best guess at what is happening internally for them, without challenging it. This helps them affix language to their internal process which in turn helps them understand themselves better. It also shows them you understand where they are coming from and what they are going through. Here are some examples:
“It seems it’s really important to you that your letters look just right”
“I can see you are angry that the vision you had in your head of how the picture should look is not matching what you actually drew and that is upsetting you.”
“it’s important to you to get it just right”
“you like things to be perfect”
“you like to beat yourself up because you what to show that you won’t tolerate anything less than perfect for yourself”
3) Stop Praising and Punishing
Praise and punishment are two sides of the same coin. They both involve parental judgement. Basically, these tactics work by saying “If you do something right – I will reward you with praise and approval (love)” and conversely, “if you do something wrong, I will hurt you, or withdrawal my approval (love)”. The child then ties his loveable-ness and worth to his behaviours. As many parenting experts recommend, we need to separate the deed from the doer. This means kids need to know they are worthy and lovable regardless of how they behave or perform or what they accomplish. They are loved just as they are, even when they make mistakes and are not perfect! It is not earned through doing and performance, just “being” them is enough.
4) Start Encouraging Instead
Encouragement from a parent helps develop a child’s courage. Courage doesn’t mean putting an end to a child’s fear, but rather teaches the child to feel afraid and proceed anyways. In essence, its’ developing the child’s courage to be imperfect! It’s the courage to see a challenge and tackle it, even without knowing how the outcome will be. It’s the courage to do things because they are worth doing and without worrying about your prestige. In order to instill this courage parents, need to learn how to be encouraging WITHOUT using praise. Encouragement focusses on improvement, effort, persistence, trying, stick-to-itiveness and the process or journey rather than focussing on the end goal of something being “perfect” and “complete”.
5) Share Famous Stories of Mistake Making
Watch the profiles of the Olympic athletes and their hours of training. Read stories of famous inventors and how many failed inventions they had before they hit pay dirt. Discuss baseball batting averages. Yup – mostly they fail! What about the first draft paintings of famous artists before the final work of art is framed and hung in a museum. Keep bring these examples up whenever you can squeeze it into the conversation.
We can’t expect every parent to be the change agent for their kids’ psychological issues. There are ways that experts work with children that require specialized training. If you are not making progress with any of these ideas, why not check in with a therapist. It won’t hurt and it’s always better to nip things in the bud.